Anglo-French cooperation on MALE UAVs may have stalled, according to reports from Paris and from informed sources AIN spoke to at the Farnborough International airshow yesterday. However, it appears that that the proposed joint UCAV study will still be sanctioned when French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visits London on July 24. Meanwhile, some progress can be reported on the recently troubled Thales Watchkeeper, which was the third (and least visible) UAV program discussed at the last Anglo-French defense summit in February.
The Thales Watchkeeper display is prominent here at the show. A company official told AIN that there had been “a lot of French [military] visitors” to the display. At the February summit it was agreed that the French army would evaluate the UAV, which was developed by Thales UK from the Hermes 450 in a joint venture with Elbit Systems of Israel. However, the £850 million ($1.3 billion) the Watchkeeper project is two years behind schedule, thanks to a mix of software, airframe and airworthiness certification issues.
Thales delivered the first UAVs and ground stations to the British Army’s 32nd Regiment earlier this year without ceremony. Operational field trials are now under way in segregated airspace at Aberporth in mid-Wales, with some 400 flying hours now logged.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) told AIN this week that the release to service process “is taking longer than expected, but as the first large UAS to fly in UK airspace, it is essential that the process is thorough.” Although a revised in-service date for the Watchkeeper has not been set, the MoD told AIN that it remains “committed to deploying it to Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity.”
A Thales official told AIN that the field trials should soon extend to the Army’s main training grounds on Salisbury Plain, where a block of airspace for UAV operations has recently been approved. “The French Army’s 61st Regiment is already cooperating with the 32nd Regiment,” he added.
The Watchkeeper is a tactical UAS, but its capabilities do overlap to some extent with MALE UAVs such as the Reaper, which is in service with the UK Royal Air Force (RAF). The RAF’s Reapers are scheduled to be withdrawn in 2015. But at the ADS Defense Conference here yesterday, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff Air Vice Marshall Baz North refused to rule out the possibility that they might be retained.