LONDON — Thales UK has been picking up the cost of providing the British Army with a key intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability in Afghanistan for more than a year, as a result of the late delivery of its Watchkeeper unmanned air system (UAS).
Since 2007, the British government has paid Thales hundreds of millions of dollars to supply an ISTAR-by-the-hour capability to forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq until the Watchkeeper entered service.
Those payments stopped when the contractor agreed for a set period of time to meet the cost of providing the ISTAR service in the wake of Thales, and Israeli partner Elbit Systems, missing several planned in-service dates.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed Dec. 7 that Thales is paying for the ISTAR service, which is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450 UAS.
“In 2011, an agreement was reached between the MoD and Thales UK to extend the Hermes 450 operation at no additional cost to the MoD. We remain committed to deploying Watchkeeper to Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity,” the spokesman said.
The system was originally scheduled for service in 2010, but it has been repeatedly delayed, initially by a series of technical issues and capability upgrades for use in Afghanistan.
Now, the most recent in-service date of late 2012 has also been missed, with the UAS seemingly stuck where it has already been for several months — in the certification process being conducted by the MoD’s Military Aviation Authority (MAA).
Neither the MoD nor Thales will commit to an in-service date for Watchkeeper.
In its annual report filed with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond in late September, the MAA warned that Watchkeeper was one of the most challenging programs undergoing the certification process. The safety authority report said the UAV was a challenge because it is a “remotely piloted air system and because it is being procured from a nontraditional air vehicle prime contractor.”
The British government is seeking military and civil certification of Watchkeeper.
The Thales UAV is the first remotely piloted system to be put through the certification process by the aviation authority, which was set up in 2010, five years after the Watchkeeper deal was sealed.
The MAA was established in the wake of a scathing report into Royal Air Force and industry safety practices following the crash of a Nimrod surveillance aircraft, which killed all 14 crew members.
In a statement, Thales defended itself against MAA suggestions that it was partly the cause of the certification delays.
“We are not surprised that the MAA regards the Watchkeeper programme as challenging; it is the UK’s first UAS system to proceed through the MAA and full certification activity,” it said. “This certification activity has supported the development of UAS as a new platform type within the MAA.
“Watchkeeper is the first significant UAS to operate in UK airspace and the certification process is designed for manned aircraft and not unmanned systems,” Thales said. “The development and concept of Watchkeeper involves new ways of operating and controlling UASs, as well as creating new certification processes, which all comes with its own challenges.
“Our system is much more than a traditional air vehicle, so a traditional air vehicle provider would not make a significant difference,” the statement said. “Watchkeeper requires the experience of an ISTAR systems specialist such as Thales UK — in conjunction with our UK-based joint venture with one of the world’s most experienced UAS providers.”
The Watchkeeper aircraft is a modified version of the Elbit Hermes 450 high-end tactical UAV deployed by Thales in Afghanistan. A Thales spokesman declined to comment on how much the deal has cost the company so far, but the arrangement could reach tens of millions of dollars.
The cost of the ISTAR-by-the-hour deal has never been spelled out in detail. The closest anybody has gotten to publicly revealing expenditures on the service was in 2007, when Elbit announced the start of the deal and said the contract was worth “approximately $110 million.” The time period of the contract was never specified.
Thales announced in 2009 that the 2007 deal had been extended two years and a further extension was required in 2011.
So far, the service has exceeded 60,000 flight hours in Afghanistan and, along with the Royal Air Force Reaper UAV, is the British military’s prime aviation ISTAR asset in theater.
The plan is to phase out the Hermes 450 service incrementally as the British Army Watchkeepers are deployed to Afghanistan.
The ISTAR deal includes provision and support of about a half-dozen Hermes 450s operating from the main British base at Camp Bastion, Helmand province. Training of MoD staff and contractor logistic support is also included.
The UAVs remain the property of Thales and its partner, Elbit.
The two companies have a joint venture in the U.K. known as U-Tacs, which provides the core UAV systems for the $1.3 billion Watchkeeper program, for which Thales is the prime contractor.
Thales secured the Watchkeeper deal in 2005, aimed at providing 54 air vehicles and associated ground stations. Watchkeeper is also being evaluated by the French MoD for a possible buy of the system. Evaluation started earlier this year and is scheduled to conclude in 2013.