The UK will keep nearly half its Watchkeeper UAVs in storage to back up the front-line fleet. (Thales)
PARIS — The British Army will park nearly half of its fleet of Thales UK Watchkeeper tactical UAVs to await replenishment of front-line stocks in the event of attrition, according to company executives at Eurosatory.
Thales has completed building the 30 Watchkeepers destined to provide the Army with its immediate operational stock and is now assembling a further 24 machines due to go into store to be pulled into service as needed, said Matt Moore, the head of UAS Tactical Planning at Thales in the UK.
Briefing reporters at the Eurosatory show here Tuesday, Moore said deliveries of all 54 Watchkeepers and ground stations contracted by the British Ministry of Defence should be completed by around the end of this year.
British artillery troops are now training on the vehicle after Watchkeeper secured its release to service in March and became the first unmanned machine of its type to be cleared for flying in UK airspace.
The Watchkeeper is being delivered to an interim standard known as Equipment State 1 and will be enhanced to the full operational standard of Equipment State 2 over the next 18 to 24 months, Moore said. The enhancements will include meeting the British Army’s requirement for a platform with a de-icing system.
The vehicle, based on Elbit’s Hermes 450, had been earmarked for deployment to support British troops in Afghanistan but the fielding of Watchkeeper has been delayed by technical and approval issues.
In the interim, the company has been providing the British with what is effectively a surveillance and reconnaissance-by-the-hour service in Afghanistan based on the Hermes 450.
Moore would not comment on whether the vehicle would be deployed to Afghanistan, saying that it was a question for the British Army, not Thales.
NATO combat troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal from the country by the end of this year.
Watchkeeper’s transition into an operational system ready for deployment comes as Thales ramps up its marketing effort to export the system.
The vehicle will contest an upcoming French requirement for a tactical unmanned air system and is also set to respond to an upcoming Polish request for proposals.
The French Army has already trained and test flown Watchkeeper as part of the cooperation stemming from the 2010 Anglo-French defense treaty.
“The French Army requirement was almost identical to the British Army,” Moore said.
France is expected to launch a competition by the end of the year that is likely to also attract attention from an Airbus Defence and Space partnership with Textron, Sagem and others.