Representatives at both Thales UK (OE18, between Halls 3 and 4) and Northrop Grumman (Hall 5, ISP 21) are biting their nails this week as the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) moves closer to a decision on its $1.5 billion (£800 million) Watchkeeper UAV programme. Industry sources suggest that an announcement could be imminent.

The programme was scheduled to reach "maingate" - MoD-speak for a decision point - in mid-2004 and an article in the Financial Times last month alleged that senior British defence procurement officials have recommended Thales for the contract.

Both companies were selected last year to carry out parallel assessment work for the programme, which will provide Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities on future battlefields.

Watchkeeper is now due to enter service in 2006 with an expected lifespan of 30 years. Thales, whose team includes JV Co, Elbit Systems, LogicaCMG, Marshall SV, Cobham, Cubic Corporation, Boeing, Vega, QinetiQ, Praxis and Supacat, has said that it can deliver earlier if selected. The team was strengthened last month by the inclusion of Cobham, which supplies UAVs and launchers to the British Army's Phoenix programme.

Thales UK is showing its consortium's complete solution for Watchkeeper at Farnborough. The external stand is showing both the WK450 and WK180, variants of Elbit Systems' Silver Arrow Hermes 180 and 450 UAV, air vehicles, the ground control station, shelter, vehicle and ground data terminals as well various scenario simulations.

The company is putting a lot of emphasis on the prospect of creating 2,500 high technology UK jobs if its bid is successful. It would also be in good position to service the rapidly growing worldwide UAV market, estimated to be worth around £3bn over the next 10 years.

Alex Dorrian, CEO Thales UK, says: "The Thales team solution offers operational, technical and economic excellence, including high quality UK jobs, technology transfer that will remain in the UK and in the control of the MoD, and the creation of the only UK company able to compete globally in the tactical UAV market - part of the fastest growing defence market. We believe our bid is best for the armed forces, for UK jobs and exports."

The Northrop Grumman ISS team, which includes BAE Systems, Detica Limited, General Dynamics UK Limited, STAYSYS Limited and Ultra Electronics Limited, is also pushing the employment bonus. It says that a contract win for company could create up to 250 jobs at its Blackwood, South Wales HQ, with the prospect of 2000 spin-off jobs created through its supply chain.

Northrop Grumman senior vice-president Tom Vice recently told BBC News Online: "We want to build on the success of the Bowman project and help create a cluster of integrated systems technology in the area. Bringing together Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics will see Oakdale become the UK and European centre of excellence for integrated systems technology."

Northrop Grumman's Watchkeeper solution offers a combination of UAVs. The fixed-wing Ranger UAV, currently in service with the Swiss and Finnish defence forces and the Fire Scout vertical take-off and landing tactical UAV, currently in low-rate initial production for the US Navy.



Source: Flight Daily News