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UK MoD reveals Watchkeeper spy-drone numbers

Refreshing burst of candour in Whitehall

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Exclusive The UK's MoD, after a sustained campaign of nagging by the Reg defence desk, has revealed how many robot surveillance planes the UK forces will receive under the Watchkeeper programme.

The original MoD position was that the number couldn't be released "for operational reasons", and indeed the project webpage is still sticking to that at the time of writing.

However, the Reg pointed out that this line of reasoning could just as well apply to jet fighters, personnel numbers, or indeed almost any military information at all. Theoretically, that would be great, as the UK's enemies would then know nothing about the British military, but it would also mean that the taxpayers who cough up for it all had no idea how their money was being spent.

Watchkeeper

The UK Watchkeeper drone, expected to arrive in 2010

Rather refreshingly, the MoD conceded this point, and sources there revealed today that the £800m Watchkeeper project will deliver 54 aircraft to the British Army. In very broad-brush terms, then, each Watchkeeper will cost the taxpayers £15m.

This allows some comparison with other drone aircraft to be made: most obviously, for instance, the pair of new Reaper/Predator-B kill-bots coming into RAF service.

Spyflight.co.uk, usually a good source, estimates that two aircraft have cost the UK $77m, putting an individual UK Reaper at £20m (the Americans pay around £8m each, but the UK - having only ordered two or three - doesn't get the wholesale price yet).

So far, so good. The British-built Watchkeeper will cost 75 per cent of what an imported Reaper does (though the Reaper price would probably drop well below £15m if the UK bought 50-plus). And Watchkeeper will be a capable piece of kit once it arrives, with all-weather ground-scanning radar to complement its advanced optics and laser target designator - just like the Reaper.

However, the Reaper is nonetheless a much larger and more capable platform. It doesn't just carry sensors and a targeting laser, it can also lift a heavy load of ordnance, as many as 14 Hellfire guided missiles. It does all that the Watchkeeper does and it's a weapons platform too.

Another way of looking at the comparison, then, is that the UK is paying Reaper prices for smaller, less capable machines. That's no surprise; Reapers are made on an established production line, whereas Britain is setting up new UK factories to build the Watchkeeper. The prime contractor, French-owned Thales UK, reckons that Blighty will benefit to the tune of 2,100 well-paid jobs (paid for, of course, by the other people who live in the UK).

The MoD's £800m won't all stay in Britain, though. Nor will Watchkeeper be a fully British aircraft. Thales admits it will be using French expertise in the Watchkeeper's I-MASTER radar, and the drone's airframe, electro-optics and engine tech all come from Israel originally. The UK engine making firm will remain fully Israeli owned, and the U-Tacs joint venture between Thales and Israel's Elbit will be 51 per cent Israeli - thus, Israeli controlled.

There are many other niceties to be considered, as Thales and the MoD have pointed out. Watchkeeper is cheaper to run, as a Mini is cheaper to run than a Hummer. Watchkeeper is easier to maintain out in the field - which is just as well, because that's where it has to be based. Lacking satcomms, it is controlled by line-of-sight radio (this will often mean sending up two Watchkeepers for each job: one to relay comms for the other). Still, in a modern UK military environment where satellite bandwidth is pay-as-you-go and tightly rationed - the Skynet 5 sats are a private finance initiative - that could actually be an advantage.

It's fair to say the UK needs some smaller, unarmed drones to go with its Reapers. Watchkeeper will probably fit the bill well when it arrives, and it will be noticeably better than the off-the-shelf Hermes 450s being rushed into service now because the Army can't wait.

But it would probably have been a lot cheaper and quicker to just ask Elbit and/or the Americans to build a Watchkeeper-type platform, rather than setting up a competing UK drone industry with imported tech. The UK wouldn't have got any well-paid civilian jobs, but it would have saved money and time. With poorly-paid, poorly-equipped British troops fighting and dying at the moment, that might have been a good thing - especially as we've now had to import machinery from Israel anyway.

Still, in the bad old days, the brass hats and mandarins of Whitehall might have tried to cover all this up under the cloak of "operational necessity." At least they're letting us know what's going on this time. ®

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