The UK Ministry of Defence expects to spend £160 million ($258 million) on its Watchkeeper unmanned air system programme over the next three financial years, but is still unable to say when the delayed type will be ready to enter operational use.
Responding to a parliamentary question on 7 January, minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne detailed planned annual expenditure of £73 million, £59 million and £28 million on Watchkeeper equipment and support for the next three years. The allocations form part of an acquisition that will eventually equip the British Army with 54 Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air vehicles and 15 ground control stations.
Operations with the Watchkeeper system were due to have started in Afghanistan from September 2010, but the programme is still involved in protracted acceptance activities involving the UK Military Aviation Authority.
"The release-to-service process, including airworthiness certification, is taking longer than originally expected," says Dunne. "The MoD and [prime contractor] Thales UK are working closely together to expedite the process," he says, without providing a revised schedule for the type's introduction.
Leased Elbit Systems Hermes 450s used by the British Army under an urgent operational requirement deal contracted with Thales continue to deliver intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance services in Afghanistan. The net additional cost of extending this arrangement since the Watchkeeper's originally planned service entry date has so far totalled £61.3 million, Dunne says, with this sum having been drawn from the UK's Treasury Reserve.