Paris Air Show

With the UK Sorted, Thales Touts Watchkeeper Prospects in France

 - June 13, 2015, 12:00 PM
After a long process, Thales finally satisfied the airworthiness certification requirements of the British authorities. But the UAV can still only fly over two specified areas of the UK, including the West Wales coast seen here.

Thales is stressing its end-to-end capability in unmanned aerial systems, as well as seven years of operational experience, in its bid to supply the Watchkeeper UAS to the French Army. The company said it is close to achieving 35-percent French content for the bid, including a new high-definition EO/IR sensor. Poland is another near-term prospect, and there are “lots more in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific,” said Pierrick Lerey, strategy and marketing director for UAS and ISR.

The operational experience stems from the contract that Thales UK signed with the British Army. This involved Thales supplying the Hermes 450 for interim service in Afghanistan, and helping to operate it there, until the more sophisticated Watchkeeper based on the same Elbit Systems airframe was ready. This took much longer than anticipated because of additional certification requirements, according to Thales.

However, the full-up system was deployed to the theater in mid-2014 and flew successfully for 100 hours before the British troop withdrawal at the end of the year, according to Lt. Col. Craig Palmer, the British Army lead officer for implementing the Watchkeeper system.

Thales (Chalet 263 Static B1 and Hall Concorde 39) is keen to stress that Watchkeeper is now a fully “European” system, with no further recourse to Israel needed for support or export permission. Thales UK provides 80 percent of the content of the British Army Watchkeepers and manufactures the UAV (the British Army has ordered 13 systems, which includes 54 airframes). Another 15 percent of the content comes from France.

Key enhancements compared with the Hermes 450 include the Thales I-Master multi-channel SAR/GMTI radar, and the Thales Magic automatic takeoff and landing system (ATOLS). The company also provides the secure communications and the ground control stations, including the imagery exploitation system. “We master the imagery chain and are the only company that masters the whole frequency spectrum,” claimed Lerey.

“It’s all about the exploitation–not the platform, that’s just a taxi,” said Lt. Col. Palmer as he briefed journalists in Paris earlier this month on operations by 32 Regiment, Royal Artillery.

The regiment logged 100,000 hours on the Hermes 450 before the Watchkeeper arrived in Afghanistan, but the latter’s radar “has given us new ideas about how to operate,” he said. He described GMTI surveillance by the UAV that replaced “many man-hours on ground patrols,” and showed SAR imagery that enables analysts to easily detect changes–“Blue is new, Red is fled.”

In Afghanistan, the Hermes 450 and Watchkeeper sometimes operated in conjunction with UK Royal Air Force and U.S. Air Force Reapers, cross-cueing these much larger UAVs, which are armed. “But we think 500 kilograms is where it’s at,” said Palmer, a reference to the takeoff weight of the Watchkeeper. He stressed the importance to the Army of having organic control of a tactical UAV.

Personnel from the French Army have been deployed to 32 Regiment to observe the British operations. Lerey said the French requirement is similar to the UK’s. Neither country has plans to arm its tactical UAV–yet.

However, Poland might specify weaponization from the outset. At the Farnborough Air Show last year, Thales displayed a Watchkeeper full-scale model carrying the company’s own lightweight modular missile (LMM).

The Watchkeeper proposal to the French Army includes a new full-high-definition (1,920 by 1,080 4K) video camera from L’Heritier, which previously supplied a 720p version for the UK platform. L’Heritier is one of 35 French small and medium enterprises that Thales has gathered to support its bid.

Thales’ French Army proposal also includes a sovereign datalink, connectivity with the French C4ISR system, and a remote video terminal that is fully compatible with the Rover 4 and 5 terminals used by French ground forces.

Lerey claimed that the Watchkeeper is the only UAV platform that is civil-certified to STANAG 4671 and CS23. However, it des not yet have a sense-and-avoid system and in the UK is limited to flying over a UAV test range in West Wales, and the Army’s training grounds on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

Looking forward to new customers, Thales proposes a “Customer Club” to share concepts of operation, lessons learned, attrition stocks, changes and repairs. The UK plans to operate the UAS through 2042 so “future buyers will benefit from the UK investment, and the UK will benefit from their through-life plans,” Lerey said.

Apart from arming the UAV, other possible options are a de-icing system and an electronic warfare payload.