The Watchkeeper drone has been developed under a £900m MoD contract by U-TacS, a joint-venture company owned by Thales UK and Israeli company Elbit Systems. Watchkeeper has now gained certification from the Military Aviation Read more
This week the UK MoD extended its contract to operate Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drones in Afghanistan by a further eighteen months. The contract extension, with U-TacS , the Leicester-based company jointly owned by Elbit systems and Thales UK is worth $70 million according to Elbit . The UK, which has been operating the Hermes drones in Afghanistan since July 2007, is developing the Watchkeeper drone to replace the Hermes on a permanent basis. However the Watchkeeper is currently around eight months behind schedule and not expected to enter service until late 2011/early 2012.
Meanwhile drones continue to crash at an alarming rate. In the last ten days alone a Predator has crashed and a Reaper drone has crashed at Hollman AFB in separate incidents, and an Israeli Skylark surveillance drone crashed in the Gaza strip. These come just days after an unknown drone crashed on the Afghan-Pakistan border on October 7.
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