While the UK is developing its own “sovereign” drones at BAE Systems and using Reaper drones bought from the US, there is also a strong Israeli connection as the UK are leasing Israeli drones for use in Afghanistan and also jointly developing a new surveillance drone called Watchkeeper.
Israel is the world’s leading exporter of drones with more than 1,000 sold to different countries netting Israel around $350m a year. Israel’s primary combat drones are the Hermes, produced by Israeli company Elbit Systems Ltd, and the Heron produced by Israeli Aerospace Industries. According to Ed Kinkane in the Palestine Chronicle “as far back as 1982 Israel used drones against Syria. In the early nineties Israeli drones were used in the Kosovo campaign and Israeli drones invaded the skies over Lebanon and patrol occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza”. A recent Human Rights Watch report details the use of armed drones by Israel in Gaza.
In October 2005 the UK government awarded a $500m contract to UAV Tactical Systems Ltd. (U-Tacs) a joint venture company formed by Thales UK and Israeli company Elbit Systems, based in Leicester, to build up to 100 Watchkeeper UAVs. Watchkeeper is a derivative of the Israeli Hermes 450 drone but differs in having an automatic landing capability and multiple payload configuration.
In April 2010, Elbit announced that it had signed a $70 million deal to provide maintenance and logistical support for the Watchkeeper project. The announcement came the very day the Watchkeeper drone made its maiden test flight, logging 20 minutes in the air in Wales.
Since July 2007, the UK has also been leasing Israeli Hermes 450 from Thales UK in an innovative ‘pay by the hour’ contract for use in Afghanistan until the Watchkeepers are in service. By April 2010, the leased drones had flown more than 30,000 hours over Afghanistan and the contract is likely to be extended until the Watchkeeper drones are ready to go into service in 2011