From H450 to Watchkeeper: Will the Long and Costly UAV Journey Be Worthwhile?

 - February 15, 2012, 8:00 AM
Pending delivery of the definitive Watchkeeper system, the UK opted to introduce the standard Hermes 450 UAV, provided by Elbit and Thales under an innovative service-by-the-hour contract.

The Hermes 450 UAV designed by Israel’s Elbit Systems has been acquired as a surveillance platform by at least 10 countries, including Singapore, but only the UK has requested major changes.

The UK subsidiary of France’s Thales is the prime contractor to the British Army for the resulting Watchkeeper system. The company says it is “the best possible solution for the UK.” However, the program is costing about $1.25 billion and has taken six-and-a-half years to deliver to the British Army. In this case, could the best be the enemy of the good?

The Watchkeeper air vehicles certainly feature significant improvements over the original H450. The structure has been redesigned, including the wing-fuselage for greater payload and strength. So has the undercarriage to allow operations from rough surfaces. A de-icing system has been added to the wings. There is a more advanced engine that runs on avgas.

An automatic takeoff and landing system (ATOL) has been added, helping to ensure that Watchkeeper can be operated by soldiers, not pilots. A second sensor system has been added to provide SAR/GMTI radar coverage as well as EO/IR. There is also a laser target marker, ranger and designator plus line-of-sight narrow and wideband common datalinks produced by Cubic Corp.’s UK subsidiary. And unlike other military UAVs, this one must be certified to UK and European civil airworthiness standards.

Moreover, Thales is providing many enhancements that make the Watchkeeper a true system. These include full incorporation into the UK defense communications network, and the design of the complete imagery exploitation, dissemination and reference system. The air vehicle can broadcast images including metadata direct to soldiers who use small remote viewing terminals, as well as streaming video to the ground control stations (GCS). The GCS can communicate with a wide range of ground, air and even naval formations and commanders.

Since Thales signed the firm price contract in mid-2005, its value appears to have increased by one third (including inflation). Thales said the customer subsequently added various urgent operational requirements.

According to the UK National Audit Office (NAO), the unit production cost of the 54 air vehicles is now $1.5 million. They are being built in the UK by UAV Tactical Systems Ltd. (U-TacS), a 50-50 joint venture between Thales and Elbit. The contract also includes 15 ground stations.

The first deliveries were not due until June 2010, and the British Army was increasingly fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq. Therefore, in 2007, Thales agreed to provide the Army with an interim tactical UAV capability using unmodified H450s and ground stations. In a unique arrangement called Project Lydian, U-TacS bought the UAVs from Elbit and retained ownership, charging the Army for their use by the hour. The Army’s specialist UAV regiment operated and maintained them, with contractor assistance. It took only six weeks to train the soldiers to fly the UAVs, learn the mission system and do the airspace coordination.

Ironically, as Thales fell behind schedule on the main Watchkeeper contract, the “basic” H450s were performing very well on deployment. The Army praised the “revolutionary ISTAR capabilities,” including “very high quality visual and infrared imagery day and night.”

By August last year, Project Lydian had logged no fewer than 50,000 flying hours on well over 3,000 sorties. Five daily “tasking lines” have been established in Afghanistan, and the operation has coped well with dust, heat, wind and high altitudes. In a briefing attended by AIN, Major Matt Moore of the Army’s Royal Artillery directorate showed typical H450 video from Afghanistan that tracked and followed suspect vehicles and persons. Operators in the ground station were able to do “target matching” and call in airstrikes or interdiction by ground troops.

“At the UAV’s operating height, the insurgents cannot hear it,” Moore noted. The H450 service provision contract has saved the lives of many British soldiers, he said. [AIN has learned that at least three of the H450s have been lost, two to landing accidents and one after the datalink failed. This loss rate seems no greater than other UAV systems, although data is hard to obtain.–Ed.].

Meanwhile, the first Watchkeeper air vehicle flew in Israel in April 2008, and the first system trial took place seven months later. In September 2009, Thales delivered the contracted training facility to the UK’s Royal Artillery at Larkhill, It was described by Moore as “bespoke and with leading-edge simulation.”

But the project was falling behind schedule. According to the NAO, the company struggled to integrate the mission software. There were also development issues with the ATOL system, which according to Thales is unique because it uses portable microwave radar sensors on the landing site that provide highly accurate steering commands to the UAV’s flight control system, so avoiding dependency on GPS for landing and takeoff. The de-icing system also had problems, and questions were raised about the safety and airworthiness evidence.

A senior engineer then working for the Watchkeeper acquisition team told AIN that Thales seemed unable to get all the answers needed from Elbit to make progress on certification. Thales UK told AIN that the UAV’s initial military operations are being regulated by the UK Military Airworthiness Authority. “The European civil certifications will be in line with the Global Airspace Access initiatives,” the company added.

The first Watchkeeper flight in the UK took place in April 2010 at Aberporth, where special UAV testing facilities and airspace have been established. But it was six months late, and 2010 passed without the promised first deliveries. Most of the mission software was eventually approved in March 2011, although some features were deferred until later. Training of Army operators started in May 2011 and a revised target date of December 2011 was set for the deployment of enough assets to establish a first tasking line. But that date was also missed. Thales told AIN that the British Army is planning a progressive rollout in-theater during 2012.

Still, the Army remains enthusiastic and the H450s already deployed provide the assurance of a smooth transition to the full Watchkeeper performance. According to Nick Miller, Thales UK business development manager for ISTAR and UAS, the system offers major breakthroughs in performance, utility, mobility and especially autonomy. “A single ground station can control up to three UAVs at the same time because the operators do not have to ‘fly’ them,” he explained. “Instead, they point the cameras by clicking on a map, and the camera then ‘flies’ the UAV as required. Similarly, the radar sensor turns on and off automatically, after the desired coverage area is designated in the ground station.”

The Thales I-Master radar comes as a single LRU, weighs just over 60 pounds and requires 620W power. Housed in a turret that rotates through 360 degrees, it provides strip maps and submeter resolution spot scenes, plus ground moving target indicator mode and target tracking at ranges exceeding 15 miles. The Elbit CoMPASS IV EO/IR camera offers advanced optics and a laser subsystem. Thales said additional payloads such as COMINT and VHF/UHF rebroadcast could be deployed.

The UAV can operate up to 16,000 feet for up to 18 hours, although 10,000 feet and 14 hours is more normal. It dismantles easily for carriage by C-130-size aircraft.

According to Thales, the Watchkeeper system will have low lifecycle costs thanks to low attrition rates, simple maintenance and training. It has signed a three-year performance-based logistics support contract worth over $80 million. The company said Watchkeeper is Europe’s largest UAV program to date and offers capabilities normally associated only with a MALE UAV, in a cost-effective package. Once it is fully deployed, informed observers should be able to assess whether these claims are true.