The Royal Thai Army (RTA) has introduced the Elbit Hermes 450 unmanned aerial system (UAS), becoming the second Southeast Asian country after Singapore to operate this drone. Elbit Systems says that the H450 has now performed “40,000 successful combat missions,” but like other Israeli companies, it does not specify customers. Meanwhile, Thales UK is separately marketing for export the Watchkeeper UAS that it developed from the H450 for the British Army, in cooperation with Elbit.
The Elbit sale to Thailand is worth $28 million and consists of four H450 air vehicles and a ground-control station. The UAS will be used for a variety of roles including ISR, target designation, and aerial mapping. The system will be based at the 21st Aviation Battalion, RTA Aviation Centre in Lopburi Province. The Lopburi complex has been flying IAI Searcher Mk II UAVs since 2001.
The RTA and Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) each have their own independent UAV programs, the latter flying four Israel Aeronautics Defence Systems Aerostar UAVs.
Thales UK delivered all 54 Watchkeepers ordered by the British Army between 2014 and 2017. It developed “Equipment Stage 2” enhancements that included the ability to control three air vehicles from one ground station, with more autonomy in the mission-planning system. Thales received a £80 million ($106 million) support and training contract for the British Army in 2016. Some of this support, plus further development such as maritime utility trials, takes place at the West Wales Airport at Aberporth that specializes in UAV flying. One Watchkeeper crashed near there on June 15, the fifth loss so far.
According to Thales officials who gave a briefing at the DSEI show last September, the Watchkeeper offers “three times the performance of the H450” as a result of its better sensors and other enhancements. The Watchkeeper is equipped with a Thales I-Master SAR/GMTI radar, and the company is now replacing the original Elbit Compass 4 EO/IR sensor with the higher-definition FLIR Systems 380 sensor ball. Thales is also in a joint venture with Qinetiq to offer a communications intelligence (COMINT) sensor.
The export offer is designated Watchkeeper-X. Thales has not made any sales yet but is in competition with Elbit (the H450) and Textron (the Shadow) for a Polish requirement named "Gryf."