The UK Has Spent Nearly 15 Years Developing Watchkeeper Drones It Says Aren't Safe to Fly

The British Army has more than 50 of the unmanned aircraft, but authorities say they still aren't reliable enough even for routine drills.

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After more than a decade of development, the U.K. Ministry of Defense has acknowledged that its Watchkeeper WK450 drones have yet to receive a full “release to service” certification. This means that officials have not yet deemed the aircraft safe enough to operate regularly in training exercises, let alone actual operations, and it’s not clear when they might be ready routine duties.

On Jan. 29, 2018, Permanent Secretary Stephen Lovegrove, the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s chief civilian administrator, revealed the latest setbacks in a letter to the head of the Public Accounts Committee within the country’s parliament. The memo appeared online earlier in March 2018 and a report by Jane’s 360 called it an “unprecedented move” on the part of the Secretary. The United Kingdom first announced the project in 2005 and the British Army now has a fleet of approximately 52 of the unmanned aircraft, which carry a sensor turret with electro-optical and infrared full motion video cameras and synthetic aperture imaging radar with a ground moving target indicator function.

“Any impact on value for money caused by the delay … has been mitigated by the ability of WK [Watchkeeper] to meet operational need in the intervening period,” Lovegrove insisted in his letter in defense of the project. “In relation to the balance between propriety and regularity, and value for money, existing controls, and their cost, are appropriate in relation to the potential for achieving value for money benefits.”

“Watchkeeper has flown thousands of hours, supported British troops in Afghanistan and could be sent on operations now if required,” a Ministry of Defense Spokesperson told Jane’s, echoing those sentiments, in a statement earlier in March 2018. “The release to service safety certificate is expected later this year.”

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A British Army Watchkeeper WK450.

But these comments clearly downplay what otherwise appear to be serious issues that have plagued the program from the start. And though it is technically true that British Army, which operates the existing drones, could deploy them if necessary, they would need to secure an “Operational Emergency Clearance” waiver in order to do so.

According to Lovegrove’s missive, the most recent delay was the result of the crash of one of the unmanned aircraft, with the serial number WK003, into Cardigan Bay off the coast of Wales in March 2017. The U.K. Ministry of Defense has not yet released the cause of that mishap, which occurred while a team of British Army and contractor personnel were training a new pilot.

This incident, which was the second crash in as many months, grounded the entire Watchkeeper fleet until June 2017. The “subsequent development of relevant evidence” allowed flights to resume, but a under an experimental flight testing permit, Lovegrove explained.

It is not entirely clear why the program has been so troublesome and the U.K. Ministry of Defense has been historically tight-lipped about the aircraft in general. The U.K.-based subsidiary of French defense contractor Thales and Elbit formed a joint venture company, UAV Tactical Systems, to build Watchkeeper in the United Kingdom.

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An underside view showing some of Watchkeeper's sensors.

Watchkeeper at its core is a derivative of Israeli manufacturer Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450, which first flew in 1998 and remains in military and civilian use around the world. Setbacks with the project even prompted the U.K. Ministry of Defense to lease nine of those drones from Elbit directly for combat operations.

Part of the issue could be in Watchkeeper’s navigation system. The Hermes 450s that the British Army obtained from Elbit featured a unique inertial navigation system using laser gyroscopes, which may have carried over to the WK450.

Elbit Systems

The earlier Hermes 450.

Those unmanned aircraft flew more than 86,000 hours during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but had also suffered eight crashes during flights in the latter country by 2013. Unfortunately, we don’t know the exact circumstances of those mishaps and whether some of the nine aircraft were involved in multiple incidents.

Whatever the case, the issues appear to be long-standing at this point. In 2015, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the British Army had only deployed three Watchkeepers to Afghanistan and only for a brief period of a few weeks before the United Kingdom withdrew the bulk of its forces from the country in 2014. The aircraft flew only 146 hours in total.

This came as the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully deployed its MQ-9 Reapers, which can also strike targets directly, to that country. Since then, the RAF has also employed those larger and more capable unmanned aircraft against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There is no indication that Watchkeeper has participated in that conflict or returned to Afghanistan.

It seems that the U.K. Ministry of Defense is determined to get some value for its money out of the Watchkeeper program. The United Kingdom has already spent more than $1.5 billion on the project.

At the same time, the U.K. government has already had to cut defense spending and is considering trimming those budgets back even further as the country’s economy slows as it  moves ahead with its increasingly controversial decision to leave the European Union. As such, any further delays with Watchkeeper are only likely to require additional funds that are in increasingly short supply.

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Another of the British Army's Watchkeepers.

On March 22, 2018, Stephen Lovegrove himself said the country’s military might have to give up a number of “sacred cows” in order to free up funds for more pressing priorities. He didn’t say what programs he had in mind, but the WK450s would seem like a good candidate for any cull, despite his remarks in the January 2018 letter.

Doing so could leave the British Army with a glaring intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance gap. The time it might take to initiate a new program could leave the service without those capabilities for an even more protracted period of time or force it to consider another short term lease of suitable drones.

Doing so could allow the service could turn to other more capable aircraft, such as the MQ-9 or a derivative of the U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle. The U.S. Air Force has also just retired its older fleet of MQ-1 Predators, another well established platform, and the United Kingdom could potentially look into purchasing some of those aircraft.

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RAF and US Air Force Reapers in Afghanistan.

The British Army could also look into more closely collaborating with the RAF in its drone operations. Since 1999, the two services have already worked together with the Royal Navy to run a single, U.K. military-wide Joint Helicopter Command, so there is some precedent for this kind of arrangement.  

Regardless, as it stands now, Watchkeeper isn’t providing the British Army with any real capability, either, and it remains uncertain when the bulk of the fleet will actually be ready for actual missions.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com