Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF). In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”
A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of major projects. The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).
However, as the IPA states, the improved confidence in the Protector project is in large part due to a “rebaselining” which took place last year, when MoD recognised that the project could not be delivered to meet its original aims because it had slipped by 28 months from its planned timetable and costs had grown by £325 million. As a result, the project’s budget was increased to a total of £1,155 million and the in-service date for the first aircraft was delayed firstly until November 2023 and subsequently till mid-2024.
The newly announced contract is for the first three Protector drones, including three ground control stations and support equipment, with an option to purchase thirteen more aircraft and four more ground control stations in due course. The RAF wants them to be able to fly in unsegregated airspace within the UK. However, as our briefing on Protector explains, approval for this is subject to approval by airspace regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and there are significant safety risks to the public with flying large drones alongside other aircraft and this represent a significant question mark over the direction of the Protector programme.
Australian pilots and contractors aid UK drone operations
Despite the new budget and timetable, the Protector project still faces challenges. During the year project spending was ten per cent higher than expected (an overspend of just under £13 million), the result of unfavourable foreign exchange rate variations and increased contract costs. Perhaps more significantly, the IPA documentation notes that training for RAF drone crews has been impacted by the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 and that the effect on the Reaper Force crew numbers and, by extension, the transition to Protector, is not yet clear.
The IPA documents reveal other interesting information about the RAF’s armed drone programme. The RAF has always found training and retaining sufficient crews for its drone programme a challenge, and MoD has recognised that the most significant risk to the Protector Programme is the RAF’s ability to generate and sustain the numbers of trained personnel necessary to provide the 45 Reaper aircraft crews needed for the transition to Protector.
While the IPA says there has recently been a steady increase in the number of Reaper Force crew numbers, this has been brought about by taking on crews from the Royal Australian Air Force through an exchange arrangement as part of the training programme for Australia’s forthcoming Reaper programme, and by improving retention of currently serving RAF personnel. Significantly, the IPA also says the RAF has also begun to use contractors for undertaking Launch and Recovery duties at the in-theatre airbase where Reaper drones are deployed, with a contract commencing in June 2020 potentially allowing up to seven RAF crews to return home for mission control duties.
The IPA documents also include an update on progress with the Army’s Watchkeeper drone programme. The Watchkeeper drone has performed so unpredictably and been so accident prone that last year NASA used it as the subject of a case study into whole-systems failures. NASA’s report raises questions about Watchkeeper’s software systems and instrumentation and about the training and technical understanding of its crews. Nevertheless, the IPA gives the Watchkeeper project an ‘amber-green’ rating, meaning that “successful delivery appears probable; however, constant attention will be needed to ensure risks do not materialise into major issues threatening delivery” – an improvement on the amber rating of the past four years. A recent MoD response to a parliamentary question revealed that only 12 of the Army’s 45 Watchkeeper drones (five have crashed and four have still not apparently been delivered) have been flown in the past 12 months. Just over half of the fleet, procured at the cost of more than £1 billion, are mothballed in long-term storage.
Like Protector, the Watchkeeper project has been “rebaselined” following a string of problems over the 13 years of its delivery phase. The project is more than £200 million over its original budget, and the drone’s full operating capability has been repeatedly postponed from the original in-service date of 2007 proposed during the project definition phase. The loss of five aircraft in accidents has resulted in severe delays to the project while investigations were carried out. Flaws in Watchkeeper’s vehicle management computer system, which contributed to the air crashes, have now apparently been corrected and Watchkeeper has been released to service with the Army at a modified equipment standard, although further details have not been published and it is not clear what restrictions apply to the drone’s operation or under what conditions it can be safely flown.
A lack of suitably qualified and experienced personnel within DE&S and industry contractors working on Watchkeeper has also contributed to delays, as has the loss of trained personnel as a result of difficulties in sustaining flying and training.
As it reaches its final stages of the delivery programme, the Watchkeeper project is experiencing fewer risks and unexpected issues says the IPA. However, it still has the potential to remain a headache for MoD. The IPA report highlights two more recent matters which have impacted upon the project schedule: poor weather in West Wales over the 2019-20 winter which disrupted flight testing – highlighting Watchkeeper’s operational limitations – and COVID 19 related restrictions which brought test flights to a halt in March. Delays in the delivery of software means that the aircraft will be without Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) or radar maritime tracking functions, imposing limitations on the types of operation it will be able to undertake.
Watchkeeper may finally be limping into service with the Army soon, but it is unlikely to play any significant role in future combat, or achieve any export sales. It remains to be seen whether the drone can successfully be repurposed for another role, such as maritime surveillance, but the likelihood is that the best that MoD can expect from the Watchkeeper project is a learning experience, providing some rather painful lessons on project management in the procurement of unmanned aircraft, and in particular on safety certification, software development, and crew training.
Some of these lessons appear to have been taken on board during the procurement of Protector – largely an off-the-shelf product based on a proven platform and thus requiring far less development work. Nevertheless, as the IPA concludes, significant issues still exist for Protector. Not least of these problems will be achieving certification to fly in unsegregated airspace through the use of so-called ‘Detect and Avoid’ technology, which we shall explore in more detail in a forthcoming article.