03 Dec 04. Sources close to BATTLESPACE suggest that there is a 50% chance that the UK’s Watchkeeper programme will be scrapped and an interim solution found prior to a rebid in the future.
Budgetary problems remain with the project, as although the requirement was fast tracked forward the budget remained stuck in the latter years of the requirement, creating problems for Thales and the MoD.
Whether the Mod will now return to a solution managed by the RAF rather than the Army given the problems of using UAVs form RAF forward airfields is debatable, but Geoff Hoon’s surprise announcement that the user had not been decided could mean that the RAF take the project over (See BATTLESPACE FARNBOROUGH NEWS DAY 2, July 20th 2004, THALES FLIES OFF WITH WATCHKEEPER – PILOT TO BE DECIDED).
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.
This could mean an extension to the use of the ‘borrowed’ Predators currently being used by the RAF prior to a new buy, possibly brought into the FRES programme as previously intended under the TRACER/FSCS requirement and as managed by the US with the FCS project.