News of the progress (or rather lack of it) on the UK’s Watchkeeper drone programme has emerged over the last few days. Due to enter service in February 2010, delayed to Spring 2011, the latest information according to Flight International, is that it will not be deployed in Afghanistan “before the end of the year” due to, as Thales executives helpful put it “technical difficulties.”
Watchkeeper is being built under a £900m MoD contract (the latest NAO report shows that £625m has already been spent on the project !) by a joint British–Israeli venture company (U-TacS) owned by Thales UK and Elbit Systems. It is based on the Israeli Hermes 450 drone which the UK is currently renting in an innovate ‘pay by the hour’ operation for use in Afghanistan. Watchkeeper will (eventually) replace the Hermes in Afghanistan.
Flight tests of Watchkeeper are being undertaken from Parc Aberporth in West Wales and on 17 April 2010 Watchkeeper went on her maiden UK flight. A 500 square mile test zone for UAVs between Parc Aberporth and Epynt Mountain is currently being considered (See correction below). Thanks to a helpful FoI inquiry we know that up until mid-February 2011, 13 test flights have take place in the UK since then (till Feb 2011). Other flight tests of Watchkeeper are taking place in Israel. Incidentally the Welsh Assembly has also applied for planning permission to use Llanbedr Airfield in Harlech for “research, development, testing and evaluation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).” (Thanks David)
The first ten Watchkeepers, which were due to be assembled in Israel, have already been built according to the Flight International article and training of armed forces personnel for the new drone will begin at Larkhill Artillery Training Centre in May. Following initial training there will then be operational exercise for Watchkeeper using temporary restricted airspace above Salisbury Plain after taking off from the MoD’s Boscombe Down test centre.
In an interesting sideswipe at the project , The Register argues that at a cost of £16.5m each, the 54 Watchkeepers are hugely expensive and, possibly, not even wanted by the Royal Artillery. Watchkeeper “isn’t about jobs or British industry or weapons for the armed forces”, it says ”it’s mainly [about] pumping hundreds of millions of pounds into French and Israeli arms companies .”
Correction: The orignal post said that this testing area had already been approved. It has been pointed out (thanks JG) that the consultation is still on going as of May 2011)