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20 Jul 04. UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed the worst kept secret of the Farnborough Airshow that the consortium led by Thales UK was the preferred bidder for the £850m Watchkeeper programme.

However during questions following the announcement he confirmed that the user for the system had not been decided (See BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.6 ISSUE 19 14 May 2004) One task facing the team is the problem of operating UAVs in commercial and military airspace. Thales said that the CAA will permit the operation of the Watchkeeper UAVs in a ‘military operational airspace’. But, BATTLESPACE understands that the RAF has expressed concerns that operators of the UAVs will not be trained pilots. Hence we understand that it has requested that the MoD has trained pilots to operate the UAVs in military airspace otherwise the RAF will not allow the system in its airspace! There are also deeper reasons for this worry in that for some time the RAF has been keen to establish itself on the Watchkeeper programme which is an Army asset and this may be the way in. Thus the possible change in ownership of the system could add extra cost to the bid in terms of safety features such as external lighting on the UAVs and a greater degree of control for the Ground Station operators which could change the Elbit operating systems and parameters currently selected.

Alex Dorrian, CEO Thales UK said, “We are delighted that our solution has been selected. WATCHKEEPER is a very important programme for the British armed forces and as such this decision is a strong vote of confidence in Thales UK and our multi-domestic approach. We are ready to get moving and look forward to working closely with the MoD to deliver, as prime contractor, an excellent operational capability both on time, on budget and to requirement.

Dorrian went on to say, “The decision firmly establishes Thales in the global UAV systems market and reinforces our position as a major British defence company and trusted prime contractor. It also demonstrates our strong ISTAR and NEC capabilities that are so key to the future strategy of Thales UK and the British armed forces. Based on an endorsement of our solution we expect to secure around £400m worth of export orders that will also be fulfilled in the UK”.

Denis Ranque, Thales Chairman & CEO said, “WATCHKEEPER is the most significant UAV programme in Europe and this is therefore a key moment in Thales’ UAV strategy. It confirms our expertise in systems integration, sensors and network enabled capability. Supported by our worldwide presence, Thales will offer from our UK centre of excellence, interoperable and competitive tactical UAV solutions to other customers in Europe and around the world.”

The Thales UK WATCHKEEPER solution will create or sustain up to 2100 jobs, all of which will be in the UK. These high technology jobs in systems integration, prime contracting, engineering and manufacturing will be within Thales UK, the Thales WATCHKEEPER team companies and throughout the UK supply chain. Exports are expected to increase this total to 2500. Mr Hoon said the final numbers of jobs and industrial participation in the UK would depend upon contract negotiations. Main Gate would be achieved in late 2004 with capability achieved in 2006. He said that the Israeli technology would give the UK a ‘huge technology boost.’

Thales is establishing a JV company with Elbit Systems in Leicester to manufacture tactical UAV sub-systems to supply both WATCHKEEPER and the rapidly growing worldwide UAV systems market, estimated to be worth around £3bn over the next 10 years. The operational benefits of the Thales UK solution include: a fully integrated ground environment; higher endurance, lower attrition air vehicles; a minimal logistic footprint and the ability to deploy a full system to theatre in a single C-130 Hercules aircraft.

The Thales group includes Israel

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