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30 Sep 04. Sources close to BATTLESPACE suggest that £850m Watchkeeper, the flagship MoD tactical UAV procurement programme awarded to Thales in the fanfare of the Farnborough Air show has run into turbulence.

Dr Iain Watson of the Watchkeeper IPT had expected to gain Main Gate Approval by September 30th but our source suggests that two star members of the IPT had been loathe to recommend Main Gate due to funding and technical risk problems. We also believe there have been other concerns raised by outside agencies about the project.

We understand that the company has dropped the Hermes 180 option from Elbit Systems due to risk problems, only two aircraft have been built. The larger Hermes 450 aircrafts launching scenario is also believed to have been changed following concerns expressed by the Army. Thales had stated that the 450 would be catapult launched but the Army is believed to be concerned about airframe degradation problems due to multiple launches. Therefore the 450 will have to be launched from rear airfields possibly run and managed by the RAF. The RAF has always been concerned about Army non-qualified pilots flying UAVs at 10000 feet in their airspace without the required pilot experience and air tasking orders. In addition the 450 has to be landed by a soldier with a box at the side of the runway which is believed to have caused some losses in Israel. Will he be provided with a torch at night?

Thus with the loss of the smaller 180 UAV, the Army appears to be without the small tactical UAV it required for the Phoenix replacement. We believe that Phoenix will have to be kept in service longer than required. This also poses the question that, with just the 450 to use, the Army has lost its tactical UAV capability. Will this cause the project to be rethought and revisit the larger airfield capable products from firms such as General Atomics and Northrop Grumman as the 450 falls between the tactical and long-range HALE high endurance UAVs.

Why, we ask, when BATTLESPACE has discussed all the above on a number of occasions in briefings with a number of the contenders and after a £40m risk reduction exercise to both contenders, have these problems suddenly come to the surface? Was the offer from Thales and Elbit too good to lose with tight budgets, did the Army push this through to prevent the RAF getting hold of the programme, the RAF involvement was only made clear by Geoff Hoon at Farnborough or are we facing another MoD disaster caused by lack of knowledge and capability within the DPA? As one contractor told BATTLESPACE today, “We outlined where all the mines were in the minefield over two years ago and they appear to have stepped on all of them.”

BATTLESPACE has contacted Thales for a comment

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