Paris Air Show

Thales unveils UK Watchkeeper, joins Dassault on French UAV

 - June 19, 2007, 2:43 AM

The final configuration of the Thales Watchkeeper UAV for the British Army is unveiled here, outside the Thales pavilion. Now that the critical design review is successfully accomplished, Thales is showing this intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system to other potential customers. With that in mind, Thales and Dassault are this week announcing a joint venture to pursue the French army requirement for a tactical ISTAR UAV system. A smaller model of the possible French configuration can be found on the Dassault stand.
The Watchkeeper air vehicle will be an Elbit Hermes 450 platform upgraded with a dual sensor payload (radar as well as EO/IR video), de-icing capability and automatic takeoff and landing. These UAVs will be produced in the UK by U-TacS, a joint venture between Thales UK and Elbit Systems.

“The system will form a key part of the UK’s network-enabled capability–a reliable UAV carrying highly advanced sensors, linked to a comprehensive network of command, control, exploitation and dissemination elements,” said Richard Deakin, managing director of Thales’ aerospace business in the UK.

But the British Army won’t receive its first Watchkeeper system until 2010. Meanwhile, it is short of ISTAR capability in deployed operations, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Thales UK has therefore just been awarded a separate contract to urgently supply some “basic” Hermes 450 UAV systems. The contract is worth about UK £60 million and also includes training and contractor logistics support. Thales will retain ownership of the air vehicles.

According to Maj. Erik Bengtsson of the British Army’s HQ Royal Artillery, the Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) will allow crews to remain current in UAV operations between the phasing out of the legacy Phoenix UAV system next year, and the arrival of the full-up Watchkeeper two years later. Speaking at last week’s Unmanned Systems conference here in Paris, organized by the Shephard Group, Bengtsson noted that the Phoenix system had been deployed to Iraq but could not perform in the high temperatures, nor in an urban environment.

Last August, the UK Ministry of Defence issued another UOR for an ISTAR UAV. That was met by an order for three General Atomics Predator-B (Reaper) systems. But these will be operated over Afghanistan by the UK Royal air force, possibly by remote control from the UK or the U.S. The Army made the case for its own equipment: “Ownership equals a comforting guarantee of support,” Bengtsson told the conference.

Aviation International News has learned that the joint venture between Dassault and Thales will also target the French air force requirement for a Medium-Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) reconnaissance UAV. The joint venture will adapt and offer the IAI Heron TP, as an alternative to the troubled EADS Euro-MALE solution. The Heron TP is the enlarged, higher-altitude version that is making its public debut here. IAI also supplied the air vehicle for Euro-MALE, in the form of the original Heron, which was rechristened Eagle 1 by EADS.

AIN understands that Dassault and Thales may also offer the French air force another, more sophisticated and longer-term solution. This would be an ISTAR development of the Neuron by the industrial team that is developing this pan-European UCAV technology demonstrator. This offer would also pose an alternative to an EADS proposal, namely to develop an “Advanced UAV” for the ISTAR mission based on the Barracuda demonstrator that crashed during a test flight last year. EADS is trying to persuade the German, French and Spanish governments to come up with the cash for the Advanced UAV, even though the latter two are already funding the Neuron.