Who watches the Watchkeeper?

In June the third Watchkeeper drone in a year crashed, leaving the entire fleet grounded. with programme costs and failures adding up, Callum Tyndall investigates the problems plaguing the Watchkeeper and what they could mean for the project’s future. 

/  Image: Crown Copyright / MoD

The Thales Watchkeeper WK450 is a UAV intended for all-weather intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. Since the UK Ministry of Defence announced the original £846m contract in 2005, the programme has been plagued by delays and rising costs. While the drones were initially intended to enter service in 2010 and be fully operational by 2013, software issues and a struggle to train sufficient pilots and crew have delayed their full operational capability. 

In 2015, a joint investigation by the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian newspaper revealed some of the troubles facing the programme. Among the notable issues highlighted was the fact that, at the time, only three of the drones had seen active duty and had flown for a total of just 146 hours, equivalent to two days each. It was also noted to the Guardian by Chris Woods, the author of Sudden Justice, that the Watchkeepers had not been used in the UK’s recent international operations. 

Perhaps more concerning than the delays are the three crashes involving Watchkeeper drones in the past year. Two crashes in February and March 2017 resulted in the entire fleet being temporarily grounded, only resuming flight trials in early July. Another drone crashed into the Irish Sea in June this year after being launched from West Wales Airport at Aberporth, where the MoD is testing them. 

It should also be noted that there are conflicting reports over just how many Watchkeepers have been lost; it is generally suggested that four have experienced a failure or crash, but some reports suggest there is a fifth drone in some way missing from accounts. 

Full Operating Capability (or lack thereof): Watchkeeper’s failure to fly

Amidst these crashes, in November 2017, the Watchkeeper project failed to obtain its Full Operating Capability 1 milestone, a release to service clearance that is in essence a certificate that guarantees that the drone is safe and reliable enough to be used in routine training and operations. When the news was revealed in March 2018, an MoD spokesperson told Jane’s that they expected the certificate later this year. 

When questioned by Labour MP Kevan Jones on what capability gaps this delay may cause, defence procurement minister Guto Bebb’s said: "Watchkeeper could still be deployed on operations should the operational imperative warrant it. As such, no capability gaps have been created as a result of the army's Watchkeeper programme failing to achieve its Full Operating Capability 1 milestone."

In spite of this declaration, the Guardian highlighted that delays in the Watchkeeper programme had led to a £206m lease of nine Hermes 450 drones from the Israeli aerospace firm Elbit. While Thales and the MoD, understandably, have been quick to defend the Watchkeepers’s role in UK operations and the capability it will offer, the project does seem significantly flawed. 

Given the lack of deployment in recent major operations and the ongoing failures after more than a decade of development, will the Watchkeepers be fit for purpose once they reach full deployment?

Don’t fear the Reaper: How does Watchkeeper match up to other drones?

The Watchkeeper is built in the UK by UAV Tactical Systems, a joint venture of Thales UK and Elbit. It is based on the Elbit Hermes 450 UAV, the same drone the MoD ended up leasing to fill the gap left by Watchkeeper.

Watchkeeper’s principal improvement over its predecessor is the addition of a dual-mode synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indication system that allows it to see through all weather conditions. With fully autonomous mission control and an autonomous take-off and landing system, in addition to a modular design intended to future proof the craft and allow it to be adjustable to different operational requirements, it offers a significant capability upgrade to UK operations. On paper, anyway.

Despite its impressive specifications, the report from the Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted that having the Watchkeeper developed specifically for the MoD, rather than purchasing an off-the-shelf solution such as the US Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle may prove to be a disadvantage. 

“The lesson here must be that we should be far more willing to purchase proven off-the-shelf solutions, especially those developed by the United States, rather than always insisting on our own bespoke technology.”

Although Watchkeeper is not intended for the same role as the heavily armed Gray Eagle (the recent replacement for the well-known MQ-9 Reaper), it is worth considering whether its supposedly future-proof capabilities are enough to justify its purchase over a more broadly capable alternative.  

In response to the report, Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the Guardian: “The lesson here must be that we should be far more willing to purchase proven off-the-shelf solutions, especially those developed by the United States, rather than always insisting on our own bespoke technology.”

A report from The Drive also suggests that the army may be better off turning to the Reaper or Gray Eagle – or indeed should even consider purchasing some of the US Air Force’s recently retired MQ-1 Predators. 

When comparing the capabilities of already available alternatives, it remains questionable whether taking the Watchkeeper project to full operating capability will be time and money well spent. 

Watchkeeper can only fly 150km from its ground control station (due to being radio-controlled), while its predecessor, the Hermes 450, has a range of 300km and the Gray Eagle has an operating range of 400km. It should be noted that the Watchkeeper’s range can be extended by linking up multiple ground stations, and the radio control can be a benefit in giving commanders more direct control. 

On the face of things, the Gray Eagle, which is both satellite and radio controlled, would offer superior specifications as well as armed capability. As things stand, the only notable advantage of building the Watchkeeper as a bespoke solution for the British Army is that of keeping procurement closer to home. 

Given the programme’s flaws and delays so far and the fact that the army already has a fleet of some 52 Watchkeepers, it remains to be seen whether the anticipated full operating capability milestone will turn its fortunes around – or whether the MoD may be better of cutting its losses and turning to a more established alternative platform.  

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