GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON DC Ambitious UAV programme enters next phase with a final go-ahead due in 2004

Four teams have started work under the next phase of the UK Ministry of Defence's Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle (UAV) programme amid signs the British Army wants to accelerate fielding of the system.

Ralph Starace, Watchkeeper programme manager for the Northrop Grumman team, says the UK has brought forward its desired full operational capability date, previously 2008, to 2007. The MoD wants an initial operational capability as early as 2005.

Northrop Grumman, together with teams led by BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin UK and Thales, last month began work under six-month study contracts bridging the gap between the 12-month first assessment phase, completed in September, and a 12 to 18-month second phase scheduled to begin in the second quarter next year.


The MoD plans to downselect to two teams for assessment phase 2, which is intended to lead to a "main gate" decision in the first quarter of 2004 on whether Watchkeeper will proceed into the demonstration and manufacturing phase. Estimates of the "whole life" cost of the system range from £1 billion ($1.4 billion) to £3 billion, Starace says.

Under phase 1, the teams defined concepts for the system, which will provide all-weather, day/night reconnaissance, wide-area surveillance and target identification, with counter-camouflage capability. Starace says Watch-keeper goes "far beyond" the US Army's tactical UAV and "exceeds the capability of Global Hawk", the USAir Force's Northrop Grumman-developed endurance UAV.

Watchkeeper will comprise several configurations of air vehicle, plus different payloads and the ground segment. Under its current six-month contract, Starace says, Northrop Grumman is looking at commercial and government off-the-shelf hardware and software that could be integrated to produce the "most affordable system at lowest risk". In the integration assessment phase due to begin next year, two contractor teams "will do a series of validations of the systems they have selected" and develop the business case to support a decision to move into production.

Source: Flight International