Thales finally broke its silence on the status of the British Army’s Watchkeeper unmanned air system programme earlier this week, announcing that it had secured a key approval from the UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA).
Dubbed a ‘statement of type design assurance’, the step validates that the Watchkeeper system, air vehicle – which has been developed from Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450 – and software “has reached an acceptable level for design safety and integrity”, the company says. That clears the way for the Thales/Elbit UTacS joint venture and the army to seek military type certification; a target which has been set for before year-end.
To coincide with the announcement, Thales released a short video showing the Watchkeeper in action during its lengthy testing programme. And… cue the suitably dramatic soundtrack.
Already running around three years behind schedule, it remains to be seen whether Watchkeeper will ever make it to Afghanistan. My money would be firmly on it not doing so, as an interim service using Hermes 450s has been performing well there since 2007 (Crown Copyright image below).
Incidentally, I have been told that a Ministry of Defence figure from late 2012 citing 11 “crashes” involving Hermes 450s during this activity is inaccurate, with only one air vehicle actually having been destroyed (information accurate as of mid-September). ZK515′s demise was pretty spectacular, as detailed in a Board of Inquiry report, but other incidents actually involved repairable mishaps, such as hard landings.
The army will probably look to really get up to speed on how to use the much more capable Watchkeeper system through supporting exercises in the UK, and more fully at the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada from next year. They’ll be hoping that its new capabilities will have been worth the painful wait.