France remains committed to evaluating the UK's Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air system from later this year, defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has confirmed.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy early this year signed a bilateral defence treaty spanning activities including the joint development and operation of unmanned air vehicles, before the latter lost national elections to François Hollande.

This led to some analysts questioning whether the new administration would move forward with elements of the Anglo-French pact.

Le Drian and UK defence secretary Philip Hammond confirmed their intention to work together on the Thales-led Watchkeeper programme following a 25 July meeting.

"France will undertake operational assessments and trials of the Watchkeeper system in 2012 and 2013, with a view to cooperating with the UK," Thales says. The nation's DGA defence procurement agency in February outlined plans to test the equipment in France next year, ahead of a possible contract decision in late 2013.

 Watchkeeper Aberporth - Thales UK

Thales UK

"Joint technological, industrial and interoperability advances were at the heart of the Anglo-French Treaty, and today's announcement demonstrates concrete progress towards those aims," says Pierre Eric Pommellet, senior vice-president of Thales Defence Mission Systems.

The UTacS joint venture formed of Thales and Elbit Systems delivered an initial batch of WK450 air vehicles and ground control stations to the British Army between December 2011 and January this year. However, the Ministry of Defence has delayed deploying the equipment to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan's Helmand province while certification activities involving civilian authorities and the UK Military Aviation Authority continue.

"We have gone through all of the specification and the whole flight environment, and are proving the safety case," an industry source says, while noting: "It's something that has to happen properly."

Operational field trials being conducted by the army's 32 Regt have assessed the air vehicle's automatic take-off and landing system and Thales Viper synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication payload, and also included handovers between two ground control stations during flight. Expected to run through the remainder of 2012, the trials and release to service process will also include the first flights of the WK450 from the MoD's Qinetiq-run test centre at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

Testing of the Watchkeeper system has now passed 400 flights and around 600h, Thales says, including more than 100 flights conducted from the ParcAberporth UAV centre in west Wales.

"We are building up operational experience for when the army deploy to theatre," the industry source says.

An interim capability provided by Thales using Elbit Hermes 450 air vehicles has delivered more than 65,000h of surveillance cover in Afghanistan, and previously also in Iraq.

Source: Flight International