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DSEi: Watchkeeper nears delayed service introduction

The British Army expects its late-running Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air system to secure release to service approval before the end of 2013, but the Ministry of Defence has yet to decide whether to deploy the capability to Afghanistan, as previously planned.

Selected in 2004, the Thales UK and Elbit Systems-developed Watchkeeper is derived from the latter's Hermes 450 unmanned air vehicle, and carries twin synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication and electro-optical/infrared sensors. Original plans had called for a first "task line" of the type to be fielded in Afghanistan three years ago, but this schedule slipped due to extended development work and a protracted certification process.

"We are hoping to get a release to service at the end of this year," says Col John Musgrave, assistant director at the army's capability directorate for combat support. "Once we have got the release to service we can start to train our crews and our maintainers, then all options are open as to when to deploy later."

While the army would like to introduce the design's enhanced sensor capabilities, Musgrave says the decision will rest with the MoD, which has already started withdrawing some equipment from Afghanistan ahead of a planned end to UK combat involvement by late 2014. The service currently operates leased Hermes 450s from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, under an urgent operational requirement deal with Thales.

"We have got a world-class system in Watchkeeper," Musgrave told a pre-DSEi UAS conference in London on 9 September. "We've gone through a painful genesis, but it's flying very well with the company in Wales." French army personnel also remain involved in the project via a joint task force, he adds, with Paris looking to acquire the system as a successor to its Sagem Sperwer air vehicles.

The Watchkeeper system's path to service introduction includes a certification process being conducted by the UK Military Aviation Authority. This will see the equipment enter use with clearances on a par with civilian aircraft standards, as well as approvals to perform military operations.

Minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne on 5 September revealed that the MoD had spent £831 million ($1.3 billion) on the Watchkeeper programme by the end of the 2012-2013 financial year. This represents the bulk of a total allocation of £1 billion to cover equipment acquisition and an initial package of in-service support services, he adds.