UK DEFENCE Secretary John Reid gave the go-ahead on July 20 for the UK Armed Forces’ Watchkeeper battlefield surveillance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) programme, for which Thales UK was selected as prime contractor exactly 12 months ago. It was then expected that an S800 million contract for the programme would have been signed by the end of 2004, but revised thinking on Watchkeeper requirements have led to delays in signing the firm order. Reid now says that the contract will be for around $700 million, suggesting some cutback in overall requirements. He added: «The aim is to bring Watchkeeper into service from 2010» — four years later than the 2006 service entry date being aimed at 12 months ago.
Delaying signature of the contract was said to have been primarily aimed at maximising risk reduction before the Main Gate decision to go ahead with the development and production phase. However, it is believed that serious shortfalls in the Ministry of Defence’s procurement budget also affected the delay. In order to keep the momentum going, Thales UK was awarded an interim £6 million contract in January 2005 for work to continue on Watchkeeper. The final contract is now expected to be signed within the next few weeks.
Discussion had been underway for some time as to whether the two-tier Watchkeeper UAV system was really necessary, and consideration was being given to dropping the smaller Watchkeeper 180 (Elbit Hermes 180) and retaining just the larger Watchkeeper 450 (Elbit Hermes 450). Despite no official announcement on a decision on this aspect of the programme, it is now understood that only the larger Watchkeeper 450 will be acquired. The actual numbers of UAVs involved are not being released «for operational reasons».
In announcing the Main Gate decision on July 20, it was also confirmed that the Army’s sole current UAV regiment, 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, will operate and deploy the Watchkeeper system. At present the Regiment flies the problematical Phoenix UAV. With a dwindling number of Phoenix UAVs remaining, a capability gap following dropping of the Watchkeeper 180 seems likely, leaving a need for a short-range UAV.