The British Watchkeeper UAV has been granted initial release to service. (UK Ministry of Defence)
LONDON — The British Army’s much-delayed Watchkeeper tactical UAV program has moved a step closer to operational deployment with the Thales UK machine being granted an initial release to service, the Ministry of Defence announced today.
The MoD said Royal Artillery pilots will start flying the UAV from Boscombe Down in restricted airspace over the military training area on Salisbury Plain in southwest England.
Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne said the “release to service is a major milestone in this important program.”
In a parliamentary answer last week, Defence Minister Mark Francois said the first military flights from Boscombe Down would commence in early April.
Since its first UK flight in 2010, Watchkeeper has accumulated more than 600 hours flying from an airfield at Aperporth, west Wales.
An MoD spokeswomen declined to say whether there are any plans for deployment of the machine in Afghanistan ahead of the completion of the drawdown of combat troops by the end of this year.
Watchkeeper, derived from the Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450, was scheduled to enter service in 2010 but has been delayed by a string of technical problems, updates to meet Army requirements for operations in Afghanistan and regulatory issues.
Thales UK has been running a surveillance-by-the-hour service for British forces in Afghanistan using Hermes 450s, in part to compensate for the delays to the £1 billion (US $1.57 billion) Watchkeeper program.
The release to service moves the Watchkeeper program from the testing and evaluation phase, previously undertaken by Thales operators in the approved test airspace over west Wales, to full flight training for British Army operators.
A release to service is the formal statement, on behalf of the chief of General Staff, that an acceptable safety case has been prepared for the aircraft and its equipment.
The French Army has been testing the Watchkeeper ahead of a possible purchase decision as part of the increasing industrial and military cooperation being advanced under the 2010 Anglo-French defense treaty. ■