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29 Jul 05. Our report last week that the U.K. MoD had given the go-ahead for the Watchkeeper programme is accompanied by an announcement covered by Andrew Chuter in Defense News that the MoD is looking at options for an interim buy.

An MoD spokesman said they were looking at several options to fill the gap between now and when the Hermes 450 enters services. “These include conserving Phoenix assets, using the Desert Hawk mini-UAV purchased for Operation Telic [British operations in Iraq] and non-UAV assets. These could include mast- and balloon-mounted sensors,” he said.

In addition BATTLESPACE understands that the MoD is also looking at the possible purchase of three Predator UAVs following the success of the leased vehicles in Iraq. These air vehicles may be deployed in Iraq.

We also understand that given the greater choice of UAVs on the market, the MoD is not going to rush into a purchase of a single variant. They are also believed to be looking at an armed variant.

The result of the U.S. multi-billion ERMP program, expected in early August, being competed between Northrop with an upgraded Hunter UAV based on the Eagle 2 and the GA Predator B is awaited with interest. The winner will be in the forefront for selection by the MoD.

The size of the Watchkeeper budget, £700m, although smaller than the original budget of £850m, appears large for the requirement. Numbers have not been forthcoming, but BATTLESPACE believes that 16 Ground Stations, forward control vehicles and video systems, costing an estimated £152m ($250m) and 40 UAVs equipping 4 Battalions estimated at £200m ($328m) gives a total equipment procurement of £352m. If ancillaries such as a twenty year support programme which at the time of the Paris announcement was not believed to be in the budget, and training are included, this still leaves a whopping £348m. In addition changes, as we reported in BATTLESPACE UPDATE 28, are required for the undercarriage to allow operation from rough airfields, night operations requirements, better landing and take-off systems, de-icing and IFF.

One factor not made clear is the cost of the airworthiness certificate for the modified Hermes 450, which, given that this a ‘first’ for the UK will take up a great deal of the budget. Quite a far cry from an original procurement that was supposed to be off-the shelf and looking a tad expensive?

A source close to BATTLESPACE suggested that if a requirement with such large changes in Time, Performance and Costs requirements had occurred in the U.S., a new competition would have been required.

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