back to article Troubled Watchkeeper drones miss crucial UK flight safety certificate

The British Army's massively overdue Watchkeeper drone project has failed to gain a critical air safety certificate – yet the Ministry of Defence still insists it is "a satisfactory use of public resources". Next month marks five years since the initial planned April 2013 date in which the battlefield drones were supposed to …

  1. imanidiot Silver badge

    something 'bout pork and barrels

    And a rather fine pork barrel project it is too.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: something 'bout pork and barrels

      but if Lewis were here, he'd be insisting we'd buy US....and then complain they are being serviced in some middle eastern state

  2. macjules Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    "affordable"

    Watchkeeper was initially billed as an "affordable" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for battlefield surveillance duties

    The golden rule of government contracts: never, ever use words or phrases such as 'affordable', 'cost benefit to taxpayer', 'will pay for itself in xx years', 'value for money'.

    Companies like Capita, Steria and BAe thrive on cost-overruns and departmental project mismanagement.

  3. @JagPatel3

    Watchkeeper, a byword for failure

    The reason why other competitor countries are pulling ahead of the UK in their ambition to sell military equipment abroad is not for a lack of UK Government support, but because the UK’s existing defence procurement process, which subsidises failure instead of rewarding success, has encouraged Defence Contractors (right down the extended industrial supply chain) to design poorly engineered products which are not only seriously uncompetitive in the domestic market, but also in export markets.

    There is one MoD military equipment programme which epitomises all that is wrong with the existing procurement process. Watchkeeper. This name is a byword for failure!

    Only a genuinely open and competitive defence equipment market driven by a winner-takes-all competition policy, and led by the UK Government, can incentivise indigenous Defence Contractors to deliver innovative products which will satisfy the requirements of MoD as well as export customers, at a price they are willing to pay.

    @JagPatel3

    1. David Pearce

      Re: Watchkeeper, a byword for failure

      The reason UK defence programs keep going wrong, is that they keep trying to design multi-role toys that are going to "save money" by doing several things. Time and time again the committee ends up designing a camel that costs too much, does nothing well and won't sell abroad.

      Historically successful multi-role aircraft were designed for a single purpose and only later found to be useful elsewherr

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Watchkeeper, a byword for failure

        Yeah, we have that club over here in the United States as well. I was involved in a project* earlier in my service where we picked up the hardware, of the rack, and beat it to death in testing. Worked well, so the Navy deployed it to all ships. That's the way to do it, IMNSHO.

        *- Battle Group Navigational Improvement Pilot Project if anyone cares. Also got to play with rather nice HP computer and a backpack GPS which was new at the time. Fun.

    2. Starace Silver badge

      Re: Watchkeeper, a byword for failure

      @JagPatel3

      WTF is that gibberish? Is this some sort of bot output because I can't believe an actual human would put together something with both a lack of understanding of the status quo and a meaningless buzzword bingo conclusion.

      Alternatively you work in the civil service, probably MOD procurement at a senior level.

  4. GrahamRJ

    No surprise here

    I was actually slightly involved in the project. Back in 2009-2010 I was a contractor, working for Thales who were responsible for the video feeds to the "pilot". Someone else had done the regular video feeds; I was responsible for the high-res images. Basically you tell the thing to take a snapshot, and it sends the high-res snapshot over a bit more slowly. Apparently you need the high-res imagery for formal approval of targetting. I picked up this from someone else who'd left, and got it working properly. I left before the thing reached any kind of formal completion though.

    The state of the project back then was no surprise to anyone. The idea that anyone today could describe these as "cheaper" is ludicrous. At the time, the official target price was substantially more than a Reaper - which could be bought off the shelf, working, right then. The Watchkeeper was always intended to be more expensive, and even back then it wasn't close to sticking to deadlines. The idea was always that this gave us a "national capability", not that it'd be cost effective or even successful. It was total cobblers, of course, but it gave a nice little funnel of cash to those military-industrial companies.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: No surprise here

      The idea was always that this gave us a "national capability"

      How did they reason that? Watchkeeper is a misbegotten product of a JV between Thales (France) and Elbit (Israel), and the airframe is based on the twenty year old Elbit Hermes 450.

      I can't see the UK made (?) sensors, radar and targeting system constitute any national capability of substance (particularly since they don't appear to work).

      Hold on! I understand. Maybe the national capability that MoD wanted to retain was that of "expensive failure".

  5. cortland

    Perhaps

    Perhaps they should be tested where they'll be used in earnest, hmm?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Perhaps

      'Perhaps they should be tested where they'll be used in earnest, hmm?'

      Heh, I thought they were being tested where they'll be used in earnest...deployed and operated from one country to keep tabs on (initially) those nasty radicalised Muslims living across the border in another..their tendency to crash is quite a good cover for any EJK 'Honest Guv, shoddy hardware, no shonky assassinations going on here by ogging the hardware, nope, we would never do anything like that..'

  6. SkippyBing Silver badge

    Thales not 47RA

    I'm fairly certain it was Thales who crashed the two from West Wales Airport, not 47RA who tend to crash them at Boscombe Down as it's more convenient for Salisbury Plain.

  7. Ben1892

    I didn't think the army wanted drones, which is why they pushed Fire Shadow loitering munitions for so long? tbh not being from a military background I never quite get why the RAF don't do the flying of flying things (hang on don't they have actual working drones ?), I'm sure it's a long running thing about the technical difference between army air corps, fleet air arm and the RAF, but as a tax payer I'd rather not buy three of everything. Do the RAF have ships and the Navy have tanks ? If not I think they should as it'll make it all fair then ;)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The air force can't have them because they don't have mustaches

      The RAF (along with most ex-fighter pilot led airforces) also don't want to start a precedent of not needing pilots in your combat aircraft

      1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
        Holmes

        So paint a mustache on the nose of each aircraft. Problem solved!

      2. Starace Silver badge

        "The RAF (along with most ex-fighter pilot led airforces) also don't want to start a precedent of not needing pilots in your combat aircraft"

        Pilots don't tend to run the airforce. The Nav Mafia do. Pilots are too easily distracted and don't often take the long view that leads to seniority.

        1. SkippyBing Silver badge

          'Pilots don't tend to run the airforce.'

          You may want to tell the Air Force that, the last dozen Chiefs of the Air Staff all appear to have been pilots.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_of_the_Air_Staff_(United_Kingdom)

      3. Commswonk Silver badge

        @ AC The RAF (along with most ex-fighter pilot led airforces) also don't want to start a precedent of not needing pilots in your combat aircraft

        That statement rather over looks the fact that the RAF has been flying Reaper drones for some time, with the pilots occupying a secure bunker at RAF Waddington.

    2. SkippyBing Silver badge

      'I'm sure it's a long running thing about the technical difference between army air corps, fleet air arm and the RAF, but as a tax payer I'd rather not buy three of everything.'

      As a taxpayer you're not buying three of everything, what you are doing is allowing the prioritisation of resources to be more effectively managed. As an example of what happens when the Air Force runs everything you can look at Britain between the wars, the Air Force's priority was land based air defence and a bit of offensive bombing. Consequently the Fleet Air Arm, which only returned to Admiralty control in 1939, entered WW2 with a variety of obsolete aircraft and only a small handful of officers who understood the application of air power in a naval context. Similarly Coastal Command which remained under Air Force control was starved of aircraft able to conduct very long range anti-submarine patrols as Bomber Harris considered them a distraction from the task of bombing every square inch of Germany. Ignoring the fact that almost everything needed to conduct the war was transported across the Atlantic in convoys that needed protection from submarines.

      For a more recent example look at the Air Force's decision to retire the Harrier in 2010 removing the Navy's carriers strike capability because it didn't meet their main priority of UK air defence and long range interdiction.

      Plus there are different harmony rules which mean Air Force personnel can't be deployed as much as Navy personnel, which makes programming ship's deployments somewhat trickier.

    3. SkippyBing Silver badge

      'Do the RAF have ships and the Navy have tanks ?

      Forgot to add, the RAF definitely used to have boats as part of their Air Sea Rescue and Sea Survival Training organisations, and the Army definitely has a range of assault boats and landing craft in addition to the RN's - https://www.army.mod.uk/equipment/assault-boats-and-landing-craft/

      Meanwhile the RAF Regiment has some sort of land fighting ability and the Navy have the Royal Marines, who although not having tanks do have armoured vehicles and are quite handy in a fist fight.

      For the ultimate example, the US Navy's Army has an Air Force.

  8. detritus

    Evidently i'm missing something obvious - but WHAT exactly is it about drones that most first-world nation states can't simply bodge together by themselves? It's almost like Britain's never mustered anything into the air itself before...

  9. JaitcH
    Meh

    Why Not Upgrade The Britten-Norman Islander? Good Enough For Metro Plod

    The Britten-Norman Islander, us used by the RAF in a classified surveillance, Communications Intelligence (COMINT) and Electronic / Electromagnetic Intelligence (ELINT) counter-terrorism role. The aircraft is used by the British Army and police forces in the United Kingdom.

    They are regularly seen circling and almost "hovering" over London at all times of the day and night – they can be used a bit like helicopters, as they have very low stall speeds.

    Alternatively they could use the Reims Cessna F406 Caravan II - also popular with Metro Plod.

    All these aircraft are based at Northolt - and monitored by enthusiasts using Kinetic Avionics SBS-1 Real Time Virtual Radar units.

    More information: > https://www.secret-bases.co.uk/cia-rendition.htm <

    1. detritus

      Re: Why Not Upgrade The Britten-Norman Islander? Good Enough For Metro Plod

      Bleh, without going into detail, the company that makes them is flaky as a popular mid-80s Chocolate. Disappointing. Not surprising, but disappointing.

      Better a Franco-Israeli porkfest.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    BDS is beginning to bite!

    Thales sell it as "combat-proven" i.e. used by Israel against Gaza (https://www.thalesgroup.com/en/worldwide/press-release/thales-launches-watchkeeper-x-flexible-approach-unmanned-aircraft-systems).

    France evaluated and sensibly rejected it (https://www.defensenews.com/home/2016/01/22/sagem-patroller-beats-out-thales-watchkeeper-in-french-army-drone-pick/).

    Now they're trying to add missile capability and export this white elephant (http://defense-update.com/20150917_wk-x.html).

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: BDS is beginning to bite!

      'Thales sell it as "combat-proven" i.e. used by Israel against Gaza '

      No, they mean the handful of hours it logged in Afghanistan. Watchkeeper and Hermes 450 are sufficiently different that you couldn't claim the latter's use in Gaza counted towards the former's provenances.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: BDS is beginning to bite!

        Watchkeeper and Hermes 450 are sufficiently different that you couldn't claim the latter's use in Gaza counted towards the former's provenances.

        You've not met a marketing bod, I see? Simply one take off in 'stan would technically qualify for "combat provem", but as the primary difference appears to be that Hermes 450 works, and Watchkeeper doesn't, as a Thales marketing bod I too would be using meaningless generalisations that could or could not include the H450. And I'd be touting the avionics on the basis of "beard sensing side-aperture radar", and the weapon capabilities as "perfect for wedding parties".

  11. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Joke

    Inter service rivalry

    "47 Regiment Royal Artillery, the Army unit which flies the Watchkeepers, crashed two of them in February and March last year into the sea off the coast of Wales. The MoD belatedly let the news slip out six months later during a talk by an admiral"

    Is it any real surprise that an Admiral "accidentally" let slip the army had screwed up big time?

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