Companies competing to be downselected for the UK's Watchkeeper intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance programme expect a decision by the end of this month.

Industries sources say the decision could accompany the selection of the future aircraft carrier prime contractor. Watchkeeper will include unmanned air vehicles (UAV)and the intelligence gathering, exploitation and dissemination infrastructure.

The Ministry of Defence says it is seeking "the soonest possible" decision, potentially this month, but warns that the complexity of the programme means further slips could occur. Defence secretary Geoffrey Hoon in July last year signalled that Watchkeeper would be accelerated (Flight International, 23-29 July 2002). A decision had been expected shortly after that.

Industry and MoD sources say questionnaires and answers have held up the downselection. A plan to create a joint service UAV evaluation programme has also caused delays, they add.

The delay means that the four teams - led by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Thales - have been self-funding their work since August, when the original downselection was due.

Meanwhile, BAEis preparing answers to a series of questions on the lease of 30 Hawk trainers to the Royal Air Force.

BAE submitted an unsolicited bid in late 2001, seeking to ensure that the Hawk is the preferred advanced trainer within the proposed UK Military Flight Training System.

The MoDsays it "is working with BAE" to ensure the aircraft meets the UK's needs, to the necessary timetable and "at the right price". This has included benchmarking against other trainers, says the MoD, including the Aermacchi M346.

Source: Flight International