UK could arm its Watchkeeper UAVs

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The UK could integrate a lightweight weapon with its Thales UK/Elbit Systems Watchkeeper 450 tactical unmanned air vehicles, operations of which should begin from late next year.

"We are conducting analysis to investigate the contribution that an armed Watchkeeper UAV system could make in current and future operations," confirms minister for international defence and security Baroness Taylor. The work is being conducted as part of the Ministry of Defence's "routine capability planning process", she says.

Taylor's comment represents the first time that the MoD has acknowledged the possibility of arming the British Army's future WK450 air vehicles. However, the ministry adds: "We are still at an early stage of considering the benefits, and as yet no decisions regarding which munitions should be used have been made."

 
© Thales UK
The British Army should begin using the WK450 from late 2010

One likely candidate for a weaponised version is Thales Air Systems' lightweight multirole missile (LMM), which has previously been shown at exhibitions with a model of the WK450.

Unveiled in mid-2008 and based on elements of Thales's Starstreak ground-based air-defence weapon, the precision-guided LMM has a launch weight of around 13kg (28lb), including a 3kg warhead. Thales has previously said that production deliveries of the up to 8km (4.3nm) range weapon could be made from 2011.

 
© Thales Air Systems
The developmental LMM has a range of up to 8km

Thales/Elbit joint venture U-TacS is building WK450 air vehicles at its Leicester production facility in the UK. Flight-test activities involving the type, which has already undergone extensive testing in Israel, should start before year-end at the ParcAberporth UAV centre of excellence in west Wales.

 
© Thales UK
Watchkeeper air vehicles have already undergone testing in Israel

Thales UK provides interim tactical UAV services for the UK armed forces in Afghanistan using unarmed Hermes 450s leased from Elbit. The larger WK450 design is derived from the Israeli system.

The WK450 will have a maximum take-off weight of more than 450kg. It has a twin-payload configuration comprising an Elop Compass IV electro-optical/infrared sensor and the Thales I-Master synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication payload.

Being acquired under a deal worth around £900 million ($1.48 billion), the Watchkeeper system is intended for use during intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance tasks.

The UK Royal Air Force already operates armed General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs over Afghanistan, with the type carrying Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II precision-guided bombs and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.