The unmanned air vehicle community will soon get its first glimpse of the promised surveillance capabilities of the UK’s $1.2 billion Watchkeeper system

The UK’s acquisition of the Watch-keeper unmanned aircraft has been a protracted process, but with a £700 million ($1.2 billion) contract now in place and demonstration and manufacturing phase activities under way, the system is edging towards a service entry target of 2010.

But although prime contractor Thales UK has much to achieve before it can deliver the British Army’s new intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system, the UAV community will not have to wait five years to get a glimpse of Watchkeeper’s promised capabilities.

In a UK first, Thales will on 7 September conduct a company-funded demonstration of the Watchkeeper system’s future potential during a showcase event at the ParcAberporth UAV test facility at Cardigan’s West Wales airport. To employ the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 that will form the basis of the UK’s future WK450 air vehicle, the demonstration will see the Israeli-supplied medium-altitude long-endurance UAV fly into the Ministry of Defence’s Cardigan Bay training area and relay real-time imagery to the ground, giving a taste of its surveillance potential.

Project roots

Watchkeeper’s roots can be traced back to the late 1990s, when the UK MoD outlined its plans to replace the BAE Systems Phoenix battlefield UAV, which was finally introduced into service with the army’s 32 Regiment Royal Artillery in 1998 after years of development delays. Designed to operate over the Cold War battlefields of West Germany, Phoenix has since operated in Kosovo and Iraq, but its low-altitude, infrared payload and environmental limitations have seen the type struggle to meet expanded requirements.

The operational potential of UAVs expanded hugely following a spike in their use by the US armed forces late last decade, and the UK launched separate acquisitions, dubbed Sender and Spectator, to keep speed. However, the rapid pace of improvement in UAV platform and payload design forced a rethink, and in mid-2000 the MoD merged its requirements, launching the Watchkeeper competition.

BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and the newly renamed Thales emerged to lead bids for the project, before the latter two were selected to conduct parallel system integration and assurance phase studies in 2003. Mirroring its past as a planned two-part acquisition, Watchkeeper became a contest lead by the dual-platform offerings of Northrop’s RQ-8 Firescout vertical take-off and landing UAV and RUAG Aerospace’s Ranger, and Elbit’s Hermes 180 and 450 systems. Thales was named as intended supplier at the 2004 Farnborough air show, launching a negotiation phase that concluded with the contract award last month.

The ability to change has been one of the constants of the Watchkeeper programme and earlier this year the MoD confirmed that the Thales solution would employ only the larger WK450 airframe for affordability reasons, and that its introduction would slip to 2010.

Former UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon had singled out the ISTAR UAV project as a top priority for the UK’s future network-enabled capability, with initial plans calling for first services in 2006. This delay gives the MoD an operational headache, because its remaining Phoenix systems must be retired ahead of this date (Flight International, 26 July – 1 August).

The surprise exclusion of the proposed WK180 air vehicle marked the conclusion of a process that had started with Thales identifying 19 possible system solutions at the start of the bid process, which, says Barry Trimmer, the company’s chief designer for the system, “after some energetic whittling, we got to 23!”

Watchkeeper is the largest deal yet won by Thales UK, which is also teamed with Boeing, Cubic Defence, Marshall Specialist Vehicles, Praxis Critical Systems, Qinetiq and the Vega Group to deliver the system. Thales expects to create or sustain 2,000 jobs under the deal before any expansion through exports, which it predicts could eventually be worth over £400 million.

Transforming capability

The transformation in operational capabilities provided by the Watchkeeper system will be remarkable, with the WK450 able to fly three times as high as the Phoenix, at 18,000ft (5,500m), carry three times the payload at 150kg (330lb) and having five times its endurance, up to 20h. The new-generation platform will also be able to deploy a sophisticated suite of electro-optical/infrared/laser designator or synthetic aperture-radar/ground moving target indication (SAR/GMTI) sensors, potentially carrying both payloads for specialised missions. The aircraft will also be used for communications relay duties, says the MoD.

Thales is close to announcing its selection of individual payload types for the WK450, with fierce competition continuing between Elbit, General Atomics and the UK company to deliver the aircraft’s lightweight SAR/GMTI sensor.

Although it represents only part of the sophisticated Watchkeeper infrastructure, the WK450 air vehicle will play a key role in its success. To be evolved from Elbit’s 450kg Hermes 450, which has now amassed over 30,000 flight hours, the new airframe will be developed and manufactured by a yet-to-be-named Elbit/Thales joint venture company in Leicester and will retain the current platform’s UK-sourced UAV Engines AR801 powerplant.

System enhancements have yet to be revealed, but Elbit has already successfully demonstrated the Hermes 450’s ability to carry a satellite communications system and underwing fuel tanks for extended-endurance applications. The latter enhancement suggests the air vehicle could also be modified to carry armament, although neither current user Israel, or the UK has requested such an adaptation.

Other key elements of the Watchkeeper system include a launch and recovery team responsible for preparing the WK450 air vehicles for flight – initially to take place only from established runways. While this will impact the time required for the UAV to reach its selected orbit – the Hermes 450 has a maximum speed of 95kt (175km/h) and a cruise speed of 70kt – the platform’s endurance largely negates this problem. Fixed landing strips also bring advantages in terms of communications, engineering support and logistics, says the army.

The UK could in the future opt to acquire a mobile launcher for the WK450, and Elbit has already tested its Hermes 450 using a rail launcher developed by Finland’s Robonic. The full Watchkeeper system will also comprise vehicle-housed command posts, 12 ground control stations and 13 tactical parties, which will be responsible for managing key components such as datalinks and image exploitation. All system elements can be deployed in Lockheed Martin C-130 or Airbus Military A400M transports, and the MoD requires that a theatre entry capability can be deployed using a single C-130J.

Thorough testing

Information gathered by the WK450’s onboard sensors will be relayed to its support components and directly to close air -support aircraft such as the UK Royal Air Force’s BAE Harrier GR9 and the British Army’s Westland/Boeing Apache AH1 attack helicopter, and could also be sent directly to special forces personnel on the ground, says Thales. The Watchkeeper system will also be interoperable with other coalition assets, including the UK’s Raytheon Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-off Radar aircraft and its land-based Soothsayer electronic-warfare system.

Thorough evaluation of the Watch-keeper system’s capabilities is needed to realise its full utility, including the use of synthetic environments such as Thales’s battlelab at Crawley, which compensates for the UK’s lack of large training sites to fly UAVs. The army says other challenges will include the need to recruit air vehicle operators – not necessarily pilots – image analysts and forward air controllers to support the WK450’s employment. As well as drawing such skills from the Phoenix-equipped 32 Regiment, expertise is being gained through the UK’s operation of US Air Force General Atomics MQ-1 Predator UAVs in Iraq by the RAF’s 1115 Flight (Flight International, 19-25 July).

Also including additional platform types, the 7 September flight demonstrations at ParcAberporth will represent an unprecedented level of UAV activity in non-segregated UK airspace and build on an inaugural event at the site in 2004 that saw the use of EADS’s Scorpio vertical take-off and landing UAV. The demonstrations also follow the debut flight appearance of a Boeing ScanEagle UAV at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in July.

The sight of unmanned aircraft at such trade and public events will become less of a novelty in coming years as confidence grows in their ability to match the operational safety standards of manned aircraft. Platforms such as the WK450 will play a vital role in the UK achieving its vision of conducting routine operations in non-segregated airspace in the early stages of the 30-year Watchkeeper programme.


Source: Flight International