Waiting for Watchkeeper

A month ago, Flightglobal published an article updating the status of the British Army’s Watchkeeper unmanned air system programme. Summarised in one sentence, our report said delayed operational field trials were set to start [these are now under way, according to an industry source] and that the first equipment would be deployed for use in Afghanistan later this year.

Not so, according to a parliamentary answer given by UK minister for defence equipment and support Peter Luff on 20 March.

“Watchkeeper will be the first unmanned air system to secure all the necessary airworthiness certification to fly in both a civil and a military environment and this process is taking longer than anticipated,” he said. ”Work continues and, until this is complete, it would be speculative to provide a forecast as to when Watchkeeper will achieve release to service or its in-service date.”


WK 560.jpgThe largest UAS programme currently under contract in Europe, Watchkeeper (Rex Features picture above) is the result of a collaboration between Thales UK and Elbit Systems, and has led to a major redevelopment of the latter’s Hermes 450 airframe: the same system which is now providing an interim service in support of the British Army in Afghanistan. The WK450-based system was initially expected to enter use in February 2011.

What’s strange about Luff’s statement is that Watchkeeper was last year threatened with but then spared from inclusion on the UK Ministry of Defence’s “Projects of Concern” list, after “demonstrating satisfactory progress”.

If that really was the case, it’s a shame that a much-needed enhancement to the army’s ability to fly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan is being held up by airspace integration issues in the UK.


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