25 Jan 05. With the threat of project cancellation or unfunded delay hanging over them, the Thales WATCHKEEPER team has broken the silence with regard to future progress on the WATCHKEEPER requirement (See: BATTLESPACE UPDATE Vol.7 ISSUE 2, 12th January 2005, MORE GRIEF FOR UK DEFENCE CONTRACTS). The MoD and Thales have announced that the Thales UK WATCHKEEPER team has been awarded a contract worth over £6m by the MoD as apart of the progress towards the main investment decision point. This critical path activity will include aspects of airworthiness approval, defining evaluation and acceptance criteria and ground systems integration risk reduction.
Alex Dorrian, CEO Thales UK said, “We are pleased with the good progress that has been made by the MoD and Thales UK in preparation for a main investment decision for Watchkeeper. It is important that this work is undertaken as soon as possible to get this vital ISTAR capability to our armed forces.”
Colonel Kevin Harvey, IPT Leader Unmanned Air Vehicles said,” we are delighted to maintain the strong momentum in the WATCHKEEPER programme while ensuring that all risks are fully understood. We are working closely with Thales UK to provide the levels of confidence sought for all MoD programmes prior to major investment decisions.”
Comment: This release poses more questions than it answers. Firstly cynics would suggest that if the MoD was choosing a UAV bid on its merits then airworthiness would seem to be a major criteria for success without the need for more money! Secondly both Thales and Northrop Grumman received a staggering £44m Risk Reduction award prior to the announcement of Thales as Preferred Bidder; where does this leave the Northrop offering, could the company cry foul to the MoD and/or ask to recompete with their own extra £6m or ask for their money back? Northrop said to BATTLESPACE that they would not comment but that they were watching the progress of the Thales bid. The wording of the release suggests that Thales has to prove airworthiness of the UAVs offered, the Hermes 180 and 450, this is also surprising given that the products offered were advertised to be ‘Proven Off-The –Shelf’!. To achieve this they have to demonstrate a Technology Readiness Level of below 7 which may prove difficult given the low-tech methods for landing the aircraft by a box at the end of the runway, its narrow undercarriage and lack of night or bad weather landing capabilities. In addition the RAF has demanded that qualified pilots operate the system when using the UAVs on their airfields which would require re—design of the operating system to take into account the use of advanced electronic controls. In addition the 180 has only one customer, Botswana and we believe that only one production variant is in existence. In addition the system also requites the fixture of de-icing equipment which will cause weight and power problems.
The inclusion of the Ground Station risk reduction may prove problematic. BATTLESPACE believes that Thales has contacted General Dynamics UK for help in this to look at the possible inclusion of Common Ground Station segments into their solution. This will require co-operation from Elbit to provide the algorithms. Another problem believed to be related to the Ground Station is that it is an Israeli product, which may prove difficult to deploy in Arab countries.
The wording of the MoD reply,” …. Prior to major investment decisions,” suggest that even if Thales does come up with solutions to these problems that they will not be automatically awarded the contract, thus are they still ‘Preferred Bidder’? Certainly this indicates that no contract has been signed. They also say that,”…..towards the main investment decision point.” Does this mean that Thales will have to contribute its own money towards this project and could Thales Corporate decide that it is too costly to proceed and withdraw from the project without the surety that they will retain ‘Pre