The British Army could extend its use of an interim tactical unmanned air vehicle service in Afghanistan by another six months while it prepares for frontline operations with the more capable Watchkeeper system, says prime contractor Thales UK.

The army has since July 2007 used intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance information gathered by leased Elbit Systems Hermes 450s in Iraq and now Afghanistan under an extended urgent operational requirement deal.

Use of the Thales-owned aircraft has now passed the 30,000 flight hour mark, with this total amassed in more than 2,000 sorties. “The Hermes 450 fleet is providing the lions’ share of airborne ISTAR supporting UK forces in current operations,” the company says.

 Hermes 450s - Thales UK
© Thales UK

Currently due to conclude in October, the UOR arrangement could be extended until April 2011 to cover the period while the army transitions to performing operations with the larger Watchkeeper 450 UAV, Thales says.

Developed from the Hermes 450, the new design will carry dual electro-optical/infrared and Thales I-Master synthetic aperture radar payloads, and enter army service later this year. The service recently confirmed plans to deploy the type to Afghanistan “as soon as possible” after this milestone is achieved.

Delayed UK-based flight trials with the WK450 “are due to commence soon” at the ParcAberporth UAV centre in Wales, Thales says. Previous development activities with the Watchkeeper system have been performed in Israel, with the air vehicle having flown there for the first time in April 2008.