The Thales-led Watchkeeper program is on schedule for entry into service with British forces in 2010, having flown for the first time this year in Israel, where Elbit Systems designed and produced the Hermes 450 WK platform. Designated Hermes 450B, it will have a dual payload comprising gimbaled electro-optical/infrared cameras plus a laser target designator, together with a radar in a second gimbaled pod.
In this form the Hermes 450B will be produced in the UK and made available for export to approved countries. Nick Miller, Thales’ business director UAV systems, reports that Watchkeeper has been offered to several countries. Meanwhile, the Hermes 450 and ground control stations (GCS) installed in ISO containers have been operating in two theaters in support of UK armed forces.
Responding to a UK urgent operational requirement, Thales has supplied several company-owned examples of the Hermes to units in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 10,000 hours have been flown. Rapid entry into service was achieved last year, with Thales providing an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance by-the-hour solution (ISTAR).
Supplied with a 24/7 operational capability, the system has provided 90 percent availability and is continually in demand because it has proved to save lives when responding to UAV over-flight cover. The Hermes UAVs deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan typically fly missions of more than 14 hours operating within a 150-km operating radius. The operation will provide invaluable experience ahead of the introduction of Watchkeeper in two year’s time.
However, it must be noted that the UAV platform represents only 30 percent of the total system, the remaining percentage comprising the many roles of an integrated solution involving data links with an HQ, artillery units, airborne attack aircraft, naval fire support vessels and a great deal more.