The UK Ministry of Defence has finally signed off on the Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air system for the British Army, awarding the system a formal Release to Service (RTS). The RTS award brings to an end a process to certificate the Watchkeeper for military service that has dragged on approximately three years longer than originally anticipated, and follows the STDA (statement of type design assurance) that was received from the UK MAA (Military Aircraft Authority) in October. The system is the first unmanned aircraft to be certified by the MAA, and some of the delays have been attributable to the Watchkeeper acting as the “pipe-cleaner” for any unmanned systems that follow it.
“The process of achieving RTS and the other certifications required for Watchkeeper has been ground-breaking, not only for Thales but also for the MOD and the CAA,” said Victor Chavez, CEO of Thales UK. “Much painstaking work has been required by all parties to deliver the comprehensive and rigorous certification, but our collective achievement is a great one: the first tactical UAS allowed to fly in UK airspace.”
Under the RTS, which certifies the system to the same standards as manned aircraft, the Watchkeeper air vehicles can now operate from the QinetiQ airfield at Boscombe Down, allowing them to transit to the segregated airspace at the nearby Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA), where the British Army undertakes many of its training exercises. Until now, Watchkeeper testing has been performed in designated test airspace around the Parc Aberporth site in west Wales. The RTS thus moves the Watchkeeper program from one of test and development into operational training. However, there are still areas that remain to be tested, such as deployability. While it would be possible to deploy Watchkeeper operationally if needed, it is not expected to be declared ready until late next year.
More than half of the 54 air vehicles on order for the British Army have been built, as have all but one of the 15 ground control stations. The end-user is the Royal Artillery, whose 32 and 47 Regiments operate the army’s UAVs from their headquarters at Larkhill, located within the SPTA. While waiting for Watchkeeper to enter service, the British Army has been using the single-payload Hermes 450 under an “ISTAR by the hour” service provision contract with Elbit, known as Project Lydian.
Watchkeeper is built by UAV Tactical Systems, a joint venture between Israel’s Elbit and Thales UK. The vehicle is based on the Hermes 450, with a new mission system and Wankel rotary engine built in the UK. Watchkeeper offers a dual-payload capability over a typical mission endurance of more than 16 hours. It has been studied by the French army for some time, and is now being evaluated more fully. During Anglo-French defense talks held in January it was suggested that a French purchase of the Anglo-Israeli system could be tied to a reciprocal British Army purchase of the Nexter VBCI 8x8 armored vehicle.