back to article Watchkeeper drones cost taxpayers £1bn

The British Army's notorious Thales Watchkeeper drones have cost the taxpayer a billion pounds over the past 12 years. The unmanned surveillance aircraft, operated by 47 Regiment, Royal Artillery, from West Wales Airport in Aberporth, have been struck by a series of faults, flaws and crew cockups resulting in a number of …

  1. x 7

    long-term reserve

    "The ministry "refuses to reveal the breakdown of fleet usage"; that is, how many Watchkeepers are available to fly and how many are stored in long-term reserve, something it does reveal for manned Royal Air Force aircraft."

    you do realise "long-term reserve" is another euphemism for "hanger queen" or "christmas tree"?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: long-term reserve

      Never mind long term reserve, if MoD ordered 54, now have 45, and have been very reluctantly forced to admit they've broken four, what of the 5 unaccounted for?

      Possibly these hadn't yet been delivered, but on the basis of progress so far, it seems rather more likely that those five have also been destroyed, and MoD won't admit that.

      1. Smooth Newt
        Meh

        Re: long-term reserve

        Never mind long term reserve, if MoD ordered 54, now have 45, and have been very reluctantly forced to admit they've broken four, what of the 5 unaccounted for?

        Spare parts to keep those 45 drones flying?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: long-term reserve

          Spare parts to keep those 45 drones flying?

          Doubt it. Cannibalisation is what makes a hanger queen. Technically the aircraft is still on strength, even if every nut and bolt has been stripped to use on other aircraft.

          1. Robert Grant

            Re: long-term reserve

            It's still an available capability, just on a 1 year to move readiness rating :-)

  2. jake Silver badge

    146 hours total combat time. Three years ago.

    For a billion quid. Good ROI, that.

    If you're the enemy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 146 hours total combat time. Three years ago.

      Good ROI, that. If you're the enemy.

      The Ministry of Defence ARE the enemy.

      And their Death's Head elite brigade are Defence Equipment & Support, based at Abbey Wood near Bristol. They're so proud of their many achievements there's even a Public Hall of Shame.

  3. Hckr

    Great waste of money.

    Getting ready to attack France or something?

  4. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Sounds like we need to start another war

    The small number of combat hours for £1G of "toys" is only because we aren't currently bombing the crap out of any third-world countries. Personally, I would say that the number of hours NOT flown is a mark of a successful defence strategy and not something that should be criticised.

    But it does also raise a question about the need or wisdom in buying F35s. Given that (at the current rate) the cost of just 1 F35 could keep all the remaining Watchkeepers flying for the next next half-century.

    And if there aren't any combat missions for them, maybe Amazon would be interested in using them for deliveries?

    1. Insert sadsack pun here

      Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

      The UK has had active military missions all day, every day, every year since these things were bought. They haven’t suffered for a lack of opportunity to use them.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

      "we aren't currently bombing the crap out of any third-world countries"

      Does Syria not count as third-world? Because the RAF say that last year was their most intense in terms of combat missions in 25 years.

      Of course, that's only busy for the manned aircraft. By the looks of it there's no useful role for the Watchkeeper, which begs the question, what's the bloody point of them?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

        "Does Syria not count as third-world? "

        Prior to the civil war, the high levels of education and income would suggest not.

        1. MyffyW Silver badge

          Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

          Syria has an air-defence capability which Taliban-held Afghanistan does not, hence the reluctance to use fairly slow moving drones. Plus we've got to get rid of (or justify) those bloody Tornadoes one way or another.

      2. Naselus

        Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

        "By the looks of it there's no useful role for the Watchkeeper, which begs the question, what's the bloody point of them?"

        35,000 jobs in marginal constituencies.

        1. ravenviz

          Re: Sounds like we need to start another war

          The ancient Egyptians kept their population in paid work carving away at limestone with copper chisels for vanity projects.

  5. Mystic Megabyte Silver badge
    Mushroom

    Good value

    "to have successfully conducted a test flight in civilian-controlled non-segregated UK airspace"

    That's going to be handy if they plan to bomb Luton or Reading. Maybe also Basildon :)

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: Good value

      That's going to be handy if they plan to bomb Luton or Reading. Maybe also Basildon :)

      I went to Basildon the other day. Unsure if it had been bombed already or not.

    2. Alister Silver badge

      Re: Good value

      "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn't fit for humans now"

      1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: Good value

        @Alister

        The quality readership of El Reg will recognise Betjemen, but sadly if you'd tweeted that quote you would probably find your door being kicked in by now.

        1. Alister Silver badge

          Re: Good value

          @Zog,

          I did in fact pause before posting it, I was going to Google it to make sure I'd quoted it correctly, but thought that might be a bad idea.

          It's a sad state of affairs when you have to wonder whether looking up a bit of poetry on the Internet might mark you as a terrorist.

        2. 's water music Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Good value

          The quality readership of El Reg will recognise Betjemen

          Even with the disguised speeling.

      2. steelpillow Silver badge

        Re: Good value

        "Doctor, how can I get rid of stubborn stains?"

        "Drop a bomb on the place!"

        — Beachcomber, ca. 1960s.

        .

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        spolier alert

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        Staines, Middlesex.

        1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: Good value

          I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit - it's the only way to be sure.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two of these just flopped into the sea? Makes one wonder what hardware is built into them. Do they have a management engine built in, as has been reported as an issue on both Intel and AMD platforms? If so, is that an unexpected attack surface that could have been used by foreign intelligence? Of course, we can rule out neither software issues nor human error. I know human error is always a possibility but the Military usually has several safe guards in place to try a minimize this; especially, when testing equipment or using new equipment. TBH, I'm not a member of military so this is all speculation on my part.

    1. TechnicalBen Silver badge

      IIRC

      The Reg did an article, and it was the altimeter/ifra red/laser/landing systems that failed. At least for one that crashed on landing, I don't know about the ditches into the sea.

    2. Jon 37

      They have a fancy laser sensor to detect if there's a runway or fog just below them, and stop flying in that case. Turns out that stopping flying when you're at altitude in a bit of fog is bad.

      (The sensor was SUPPOSED to only be triggered by the runway, they only discovered the hard way about fog triggering it)

  7. Mage Silver badge

    Application

    They will need them from March 2019.

    Already been proposed by Government. They are looking for some airships too.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Application

      They are looking for some airships too.

      Government are in luck, Airlander currently looks as though it's been given the MoD Midas touch without needing to waste billions.

      1. graeme leggett

        Re: Application

        It broke free of mooring and automatically deflated - as designed - to stop it being carried away on the wind.

        Which is better than coming down on the M1 or entering the flight path of Stansted.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
          Happy

          Re: Application

          Well I don't know about that. If you're stuck in traffic on the M1, at least you'll have a nice balloon to cheer you up.

        2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

          Re: Application

          Sure.

          But (quoted from the linked article): "The aircraft, which suffered a similar mishap last August, had completed a series of test flights on Friday and was moored near its hanger when it broke free."

          You'd think they would have asked a boy scout how to make proper knots or something like that after the first mishap.

  8. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    How is this different from grand treason

    I am having difficulty in finding the difference between what MOD Procurement is doing and grand treason. Are they doing it on someone's payroll or it is just incompetence is not relevant. What is relevant is the result which will make Vladimir's, Kim's and Xi's black ops planners green with envy. They could not have imagined what MOD procurement is doing in their wettest dream.

    1. YARR

      It seems the Russians are just as capable of misspending their billions:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russky_Bridge#Criticism

      The question is which will live longer? An underutilised drone or an underutilised bridge?

  9. Tom 7 Silver badge

    In the 60s a the height of the cold war the Russians invented the ultimate weapon.

    It's called modern management.

    1. Semtex451 Silver badge

      Re: In the 60s a the height of the cold war the Russians invented the ultimate weapon.

      I thought that was HMSO.

      Oh I see.

  10. Milton Silver badge

    Not an encouraging read

    Am I the only one to find these two statements, applied to the same aircraft, mildly troubling?

    " ... two drones were written off after they mysteriously flopped into the sea ..."

    "... have successfully conducted a test flight in civilian-controlled non-segregated UK airspace ..."

    Compared to the US, the British military has a relatively relaxed tempo of killing civilians by colliding with civil aircraft, and I do hope this isn't about to change just because some nitwits at Defence are hypnotised by new technology (which is sexy and *must* be deployed—rather like the Internet of Shit—because it's new and shiny, even if fundamentally useless).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not an encouraging read

      hypnotised by new technology.....which is sexy and *must* be deployed

      Drones are actually hugely useful to the military - quieter, less obtrusive, often much longer patrol and loiter times than manned aircraft, simpler, more reliable, lower capital and operating cost and essentially disposable. The Elbit Hermes 450 that the Watchkeeper is based on could be bought off the shelf for $2m a pop.

      Unfortunately, that $2m is before MoD worked their magic, which means NONE of the attributes above attributes apply to Watchkeeper. Luckily this incompetence won't affect the fat salaries and gold plated pensions being earned every day by the dedicated, hard working and skilled people at Abbey Wood.

  11. Wolfclaw Silver badge
    FAIL

    Good to see our cash going to French and Israeli firms.

    Overpriced, underworked and not fit for purpose, but can't be scrapped as it would look bad for MOD/Gov muppets that signed off. Just more proof that those at top don't know their ass-from-elbows, probably too busy enjoying the free hospitality !!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fortunately, this sort of thing is rare. Defence procurement is normally very efficient, and the taxpayer normally gets fantastic value for money. And, high ranking military officers and civil servants, very rarely take jobs with defence companies, and that never ever causes a conflict of interest.

  13. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    FAIL

    Is anyone else thinking "What an utter PoS" ?

    If the 450 $2m a pop 64 of them would be $128m. Call that $64m over 2 years to buy them all.

    What exactly does such a thing need in the way of specialized ground support equipment?

    It's a subsonic propeller driven light aircraft, not an SR71.

    Say $10m a year for all support costs. That's $120m over 12 years since 2005.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is anyone else thinking "What an utter PoS" ?

      What exactly does such a thing need in the way of specialized ground support equipment?

      Watchkeeper needs a whole battalion of experts and professionals. Here's just some of the exciting career opportunities open:

      Official Excusers and Liars: "The programme is successful, and will soon be operational"

      Cash-handlers: A billion quid in cash is very heavy, somebody has to move it.

      Offical Losers: As in losing those additonal 5 Watchkeepers. Now, where did they go?

      Trainers: To show the RAF and Army exactly how to fly a Watchkeeper into the sea.

      Official Askers: "Excuse me, I'm from MoD. We've lost a small aircraft and I wondered if you'd seen it?"

      Scraper-uppers: The equivalent of the clean up team in the Men In Black films.

  14. Ian Johnston Silver badge

    I wonder whether Thales would have made more on the deal if their product worked?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Nope. The "as tendered" contract is usually let to a company bidding at or below cost price, and all the money is made in the endless changes and variations.

      Even if the MoD specified an aircraft and forgot the engine, all the usual suspects would bid for it below cost, saying nothing about the obvious flaw, knowing that the contract would be revised. The lowest (ie most mendacious) bidder would then be awarded the contract, and then they just reel in the catch, doing the minimum the MoD ask for in the hope of securing multiple variation orders around the same basic problems. And because MoD insist of specifying kit down to the last washer, there's no point in contractors saying "That won't work! But here, we can offer you this fully working, warrantied solution, off the shelf, and we're going to make a decent profit on our price". In that case, MoD would haggle at the asking price, award the contract to somebody else anyway, start adding back in all the stupid ideas that meant the original tender wouldn't have worked, and probably blacklist the supplier for pointing out the faults.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    enough to put three frontline Type 23 frigates to sea for a year

    really disappointing to see this silly comparison, no different to the BBC-que fashion of measuring everything in olympic-sized swimming pools stuck on top of 20 London double-deckers submerged nose to tail (beak to beacon) in the abovementioned pools. Why not compare it to the cost of bullets fired from personal assault rifles over (estimated) 2646 years of ongoing counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan, or something even more spectacular and irrelevant? :/

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: enough to put three frontline Type 23 frigates to sea for a year

      Hardly a silly comparison when the Navy can't afford to keep its ships seaworthy and at sea. All of the comparisons would seem to me to be entirely appropriate, and usefully representative of the gross incompetence and waste by the MoD.

  16. sawatts

    Part of the problem is taking the lowest bid regardless of how realistic is was. Although the company I was working for bid on the Watchkeeper contract at "US" levels which probably didn't help. (Interesting maths though...)

    To be fair, the MOD (and UKGOV) are pretty terrible at managing techy contracts -- trying to be very specific and lock down requirements to "keep control" without fully understanding the scope of the problem or issues at hand. Requirements inevitably change mid-project, which is always going to be expensive. (On one MOD contract in the last couple of years we worked for six months against a specification that we later discovered had been changed four times during that period - nullifying any effort upto that point...)

  17. Cuddles Silver badge

    Seems logical

    "public money spent on operating the drones had fallen since 2010"

    The more of them you crash, the less the remaining fleet costs to operate. They're not accidents, they're proactive cost-saving measures.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Only Defense Contractors...

    ...would ever state in public that a 12 year old project would meet it's initial readiness requirements in another year with a straight face. This has less to due with the bidding process than the lack of competence and oversight in the worlds militaries. Since there are rewards for delaying projects and forcing cost overruns and rarely any penalties, everyone is gaming the system.

    Say it with me! Transparency!, Oversight!, Penalties!.

    Sadly, a billion and 12 years is now routine. If you want to see REAL graft look at the F-35 Flying Turkey. 22 years in development and I suspect left to there own devices, I will see a working fusion reactor before an F-35 meets it's full initial requirements. It's looking like at least a decade before it's integrated mission maps are working as paid for, and they have been fighting hard to avoid even starting testing on it's full weapons suite, so I expect that is going to hit some "bumps" as well.

    The capabilities of these aircraft were designed to defeat threats from the '90s, and my cellphone is probably a more capable computer. We need to be funding competitive UAV designs with development cycles measures in years, not decades. Otherwise we will be humiliated by an opponent who bought their gear off Alibaba.

  19. Archtech Silver badge

    One big modern hospital...

    £1 billion would pay for one big state-of-the-art hospital; or 10,000 MRI scanners; or 200,000 hip operations; or the salaries and overheads for about 10,000 professionals for a year.

  20. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    Surprised at how few hours are flown...

    ...but not too surprised at the price.

    Given the requirements to operate in EU/UK civil airspace, this system is man-rated in a sense and definitely has to hit EU airworthiness certificate standards. That makes for a very expensive development and cert. IIRC the first aircraft development to break a billion was the DC-10 airliner and that was back in the 70s. Modern airliner development makes that look very cheap, by up to an order of magnitude. Yes civil aircraft are larger but the marginal increase in material is not the issue here. A bog standard B737 will set you back 25-50mil. I'm intentionally using civil numbers here because at least in the commercial sector you need to make a profit at some point so you get a better feel for real costs than if you are working with a Lockheed or BAE who is just out to screw you.

    Bottom line- aviation is extremely expensive. Sucks to be a taxpayer. Can we try peace?

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