‘Significant issues’ facing MoD drone projects says spending watchdog

UK’s ‘Protector’ drone: questions over procurement and operation costs’.

Two of the government’s flagship drone projects – development of the new ‘Protector’ armed drone to replace the Royal Air Force’s current Reaper system, and the Army’s ‘Watchkeeper’ surveillance drone – are facing “significant issues” according to a newly published analysis of government major projects by a spending watchdog.

The latest annual report from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), an agency of the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, has highlighted a series of problems and delays currently challenging the two drone programmes. The Protector programme is at risk as a result of “insufficient manpower across the programme” and US arms export regulations which “add complexity to the programme”, while the Watchkeeper project, already beset by years of delays, is facing problems over personnel training and the achievement of a Release to Service.

Both programmes have been flagged with an ‘Amber’ warning by the IPA, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention”.  The issues should be addressed promptly if they are not to result in an over-run of costs or schedule.  The figures are based on a snapshot assessment of the programme status as at the end of September 2016, so the published information does not give a fully up-to-date picture of the situation.

The Protector programme is intended to deliver a future RAF capability for deep and persistent armed  surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance, through the purchase of  “more than twenty” Certifiable Predator B drone aircraft built by the US company General Atomics.  According to the IPA, insufficient manpower “in a variety of appointments” within the programme means that, unless action is taken,  Protector could fail to meet its ‘initial operating capability’ target date.  Steps to address the problem, including the commissioning of an independent work force study by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and filling of some posts, have “marginally improved manpower, but not yet to a level that affects the delivery confidence”.

Other concerns have arisen over “challenges to procurement” posed by US export regulations.   The Ministry of Defence  hopes that consistent engagement and establishment of a governance regime with programme managers in the USA will address this issue over future months.

Protector is included in the IPA’s annual analysis of government projects for the first time this year.  Because the project is relatively immature, its estimated costs are based on studies and assumptions made before the Main Gate Business Case for the project was approved.  The whole life cost of the project (equipment procurement costs plus operating costs over the life of the drones) is currently assessed at £929 million, but modifications to contracted logistic support arrangements and a US export contract for “sensitive equipment” may cause this figure to change.  As the drones are to be purchased from the USA, project costs will also depend on variations in the currency exchange rate between the dollar and the pound.

The uncertainties associated with a new venture may justify an Amber rating for the Protector programme, but they certainly don’t provide an excuse for the ongoing problems afflicting the Watchkeeper project.  Watchkeeper, built by a consortium led by the French defence contractor Thales, is intended to provide a surveillance and reconnaissance drone capability for the British Army.  Originally commissioned in 2005 and intended to enter service in 2010, Watchkeeper managed to achieve a dismal 146 hours of flight in Afghanistan shortly before UK forces withdrew in 2014, and has since reached the training phase of the project with pilots from the Royal Artillery.

The Watchkeeper project has been rated as Amber by the IPA because of “concerns over training and the achievement of a Release to Service”, causing the in-service date of the project to be further delayed.   The current estimate of Watchkeeper’s whole life cost – initially estimated at around £800 million – is now £1,116m, but this does not include the costs of “mid life obsolescence work” planned for the next decade.

The Watchkeeper programme has been troubled by a series of delays and technical problems since its inception.  In July 2014 the Ministry of Defence told the House of Commons Defence Committee that a number of factors had impacted on the programme, including Thales’ limited experience in the delivery of drone programmes; underestimation of the work needed to ensure compliance with airworthy regulations and safety certification; software and electronic technical problems; communication issues; and changes to training requirements for Army personnel.  Perhaps worryingly from the MoD’s point of view, shortages of suitably qualified and skilled personnel – already flagged by the IPA as an issue for the Protector programme – were an important underlying cause of the problems Watchkeeper experienced, most notably in airworthiness, training and, software certification.  Airworthiness certification has been highlighted as a key risk to the Protector programme

The Ministry of Defence says that lessons have been learned, but it is clear that it is still navigating through a learning phase in the management and procurement of its military drone programmes.  Whether the learning has been sufficient to ensure the successful delivery of  Protector and future drone programmes remains to be seen.

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