Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/04/15/watchkeeper_flies_wales/

Blighty's first home grown war robot takes to Welsh skies!

Pigs may not fly, but pork barrels can

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 15th April 2010 13:16 GMT

The UK tentacle of French arms giant Thales is delighted today to announce that its new "Watchkeeper" drone aircraft for the British Army has made its first flight in UK airspace. The machine first flew in 2008, above Israel, where the Hermes 450 it is based on is made.

The Watchkeeper makes its first UK flight. credit: Thales UK

A slight £12m+ markup, but each one comes with 38 free arms workers!

“This is a momentous accomplishment in the Watchkeeper programme and just one of a number of flight trials scheduled over the coming months," enthused Alex Dorrian, Thales' UK chief.

"This milestone reflects the years of hard work by Thales UK, the MoD and other parties since the contract was signed,” he added.

The 20-minute Watchkeeper flight took place yesterday at the new ParcAberporth drone-drome in Wales, operated by controversial MoD selloff bonanza firm Qinetiq, which it is hoped will become a huge economic boon for Wales as the UK robocraft business booms in future. For now though, the main job it has is testing Watchkeeper.

The Watchkeeper itself is a modification of the Hermes 450 craft from Elbit of Israel, which the British Army is already using in Afghanistan under a lease deal with Elbit and Thales. Watchkeeper is superior to a basic Hermes 450, however, as it carries a ground-moving-target-indicator radar (developed with the help of Thales' French operations) in addition to its electro-optical spyeye package.

The plan is for the British Watchkeepers and their engines to be made (or assembled, anyway) in Blighty. The aircraft will be put together at a company in Leicester called U-TacS, 51 per cent owned by Elbit - thus, Israeli-controlled. The UK engine-making factory will be fully Israeli-owned.

Apart from Thales' I-MASTER Franco-UK radar, various other European components will replace the ones used by Israel in the Hermes 450. This process is described by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Thales as essentially endowing Britain with a new unmanned-aircraft manufacturing base boasting 2000+ well-paid, skilled British jobs. This is the main reason why it is taking years and costing hundreds of millions to field a fairly ordinary radar+EO surveillance aircraft.

A quarter of a million Brit civilians living off the MoD quite simply isn't enough

In fact, Watchkeeper is projected to cost £900m at the latest estimates for the supply of 54 aircraft, putting each one at £17m - though subsequent purchases by any export customers would be much cheaper (provided that the production line stays open), the MoD having paid the development costs.

Corporate art of an armed Warrior-Alpha

Cheaper, and armed as well. But no drone-drome for Wales or jobs for Leicester.

By contrast, the US Army Sky Warrior programme is intended to field a fleet of 132 aircraft with ground stations spares and other support for approximately $1bn - or $7.5m per aircraft, say £4.9m at current rates. The Sky Warrior does all that the Watchkeeper does and a lot more - unlike the Brit-Franco-Israeli aircraft it is armed, able to carry four Hellfire missiles. It is already in combat service.

Even a much bigger and hugely more powerful Reaper drone, able to carry 14 Hellfires and climb to 50,000 feet - already in service with British forces in Afghanistan - only costs £10m, according to the MoD, as compared to £17m for a Watchkeeper.

As it happens General Atomics, makers of both the Reaper and Sky warrior, announced a fortnight ago that they are currently delivering eight aircraft a month "with the capacity to double production if needed".

Watchkeeper is currently running six months late: yesterday's flight should have happened last year, and it will not commence deliveries to the Army this summer as planned.

There can't be much doubt that if the MoD had simply ordered Sky Warriors from the States - or enhanced Hermes 450s direct from Elbit - without attempting to set up a (somewhat) British drone-manufacturing industry in the process, our troops fighting overseas would have got what they needed a lot quicker and for a lot less money.

Of course then we wouldn't have our 2,000 new, well-paid armsbiz jobs. Thales note as an aside to today's announcement that they believe there are already 305,000 people in the UK arms industry - around three for every (poorly paid) soldier in the British Army, if it's true, and this on top of 80,000+ MoD civil servants.

According to senior industry executives, no more than 55,000 of these jobs are linked to exports and thus are not dependent on MoD funds (the reality is probably much fewer, as exports of defence manufactures have run at a paltry £1-2bn in recent years).

Comment

Even by the arms biz figures, we taxpayers were supporting a cool quarter of a million well-paid civilians here in the UK from our defence budget already, even before the Watchkeeper job-creation scheme. We only have a hundred thousand soldiers, who are much worse paid at every level and are infinitely more worthy of our support and respect. Quite a lot of us might reasonably wish our cash had been spent in other ways. ®