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Watchkeeper fully operational in Afghanistan, UK reveals

The British Army’s Thales UK/Elbit Systems-developed Watchkeeper unmanned air system (UAS) has become fully operational in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence has announced.

Revealing the development on 29 September, the MoD said: “This new capability is providing force protection for British troops as they prepare to draw down from Afghanistan by the end of this year.”

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Army personnel began training on the system from Boscombe Down in Wiltshire earlier this year, but there had been no prior indication that the new type would be sent to Afghanistan before the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force completes its mission.

The long-delayed tactical UAS is now being operated from Camp Bastion in Helmand province, alongside Thales-supported Elbit Hermes 450s – the model from which the Watchkeeper is derived. However, unlike the baseline platform, the British Army aircraft carries a twin payload comprising an electro-optical/infrared sensor and a Thales-produced synthetic aperture radar.

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“Following the handover of Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, the unmanned air system will return home to Wiltshire,” the MoD says. It declines to disclose how many air vehicles have been deployed to the theatre of operations, but confirms that the first deployment of equipment occurred in August.

Welcoming the system’s introduction to operational use, defence secretary Michael Fallon says: “Watchkeeper will be a significant surveillance and reconnaissance capability for the army for years to come.”

Thales has provided no further details about the deployment, but says it welcomes the development at a time when "other countries assess Watchkeeper for their tactical unmanned requirements." France is one potential future operator of the system, which was first flown in UK airspace in April 2010.

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