Select Committee on Defence Thirteenth Report

3  ISTAR: the contribution of UAVs

The increasing capability and importance of UAVs

19.  The increasing capability and importance of UAVs were highlighted in the memoranda submitted to our inquiry and examples are provided in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Examples from the memoranda received of the increasing capability and importance of UAVs
The increasing capability and importance of UAVs

"in 1998 a UAV crossed the Atlantic for the first time, covering 3270 kilometres in 26 hours and 45 minutes using a gallon and a half of fuel…. boundaries around aircraft effectiveness and efficiency had been shattered by this exciting new technology, which offered the potential to greatly reduce the exposure of aircrew to risk and to greatly expand military ISTAR capabilities"—Intellect.[18]

"Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) have a major contribution to make to the aerial surveillance component of…. (ISTAR) capability…. Have performance characteristics unmatched, or not matched cost effectively, by manned aircraft including persistence…. agility, and the ability to operate from rudimentary take off and landing sites"—Thales UK.[19]

"UAVs are transforming the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. Future conflicts will see their role expanded dramatically. In war-fighting situations, they offer shortened target engagement timescales compared to conventional platforms. For peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, they offer vital persistent ISTAR capabilities"—Northrop Grumman.[20]

"a UA can climb, dive and turn faster and more tightly than manned aircraft…. giving them superior aerobatic capabilities. This has led to the US Air Force to call for Unmanned Combat Aircraft Systems (UCAS), which are confidently predicted to outperform future manned combat aircraft in the next decade or two"—Royal Aeronautical Society.[21]

"over 39 countries have developed or are developing UAVs of varying sizes and with varying levels of technical sophistication. A 2005 census revealed some 400 UAV programmes in existence or under development"—Royal Aeronautical Society.[22]

20.  The Global Hawk UAV provides a good illustration of the increasing capability of UAVs. John Brooks, President of Northrop Grumman Inc. told us that:

One Global Hawk is capable of searching the entire State of Illinois in a single mission. That may not be terribly useful to you and perhaps I could offer that the combination of England and Wales are about the same volume as the State of Illinois; or, to put it in a operational context, if we think back to the horrific tsunami in the South Pacific of a few years ago, one Global Hawk is capable of surveilling the entire region affected by that tsunami in one mission.[23]

Ed Walby, Business Development, HALE Unmanned Systems, Northrop Grumman added:

in terms of the capability of the sensors…. it actually has the ability to image every square inch of the territory [the example of Illinois], not just survey it.[24]

21.  The NATO Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) acknowledges the importance of UAVs:

Today we have in our hands a completely new capability that allows commanders to project power in every way we may imagine through the use of unmanned systems…. the increased demand for UAS in NATO is being fostered by the large variety of tasks that UAS may perform such as precision target designation, communications and data relay, mine detection and a host of other missions. We can say that UAS are changing the way commanders conduct military operations.[25]

22.   Northrop Grumman's memorandum notes that within the US Armed Forces the use of UAVs is already widespread, "while, in the UK, the MoD has made UAVs a strategic priority".[26] The Royal Aeronautical Society considers that the MoD and the UK armed services were "perhaps slow to appreciate the potential of unmanned systems and the value of UAS operations is only beginning to be recognised in MoD and only in specialised areas". However, it acknowledges that:

it is evident from the Afghanistan deployment and commitment of research funds to technology acquisition in this area and the general awareness of UAS is very much better than before and improving at a pace. The Society believes that ISTAR is one of the specialised areas where UASs are being taken seriously and that MoD ISTAR planning has been and is being further reassessed as a result of UAS experience.[27]

23.  We asked if the UK had been slow in recognising the benefits of UAVs. John Brooks, said that he had no expertise to comment on the MoD's progress, but he pointed out that in the US "we have benefited from some period of time and some very large investments of dollars which have enabled us to field some of the advanced capabilities". He considered that, given the close relationship between the two countries, the UK "has the ability to capitalise on these investments". [28] Victor Chavez, Vice President, Business Development, Sales and Marketing, Thales UK, told us that the US had invested more than any other country in strategic UAV systems such as the Reaper and Global Hawk systems. However, he considered that "If you look at the middle level, where we see Watchkeeper and the Hermes 450, the country that has invested more and has greater operational experience of that than almost anywhere is Israel".[29]

24.  The capabilities of UAVs have increased significantly in recent years and the pace of change is likely to continue in line with technological advances. The United States in particular has made substantial investment in UAV technology. We note that the MoD has recognised the important contribution that UAVs can make, particularly in relation to ISTAR.

UAVs acquired as UORs

25.  ISTAR collection requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan are being delivered through a layered approach using manned and unmanned platforms. MoD see this as a model for the future.[30] In addition to in-service ISTAR assets, a number of additional capabilities have been provided as UORs over recent years to address specific capability gaps in current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MoD's memorandum states that "For the period 2003-07 the emphasis has been on improving the ability to collect ISTAR against an increasingly agile and ISTAR-aware adversary."[31] Details of the key UAVs acquired by the MoD as UORs for current operations are provided in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Key UAVs acquired by the MoD as UORs for current operations
Key UAVs acquired by the MoD as UORs

Reaper (formerly Predator B)—This Theatre/Operational level UAV system came into service in autumn 2007 to meet an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) for persistent ISTAR in Afghanistan. Reaper is a large UAV weighing about 4,500kg and with a wingspan of 20m. It carries a FMV sensor and a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) with Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) capability. It also carries a laser range finder and designator. It has an operational endurance of approximately 16 hours[32], and can fly at up to about 240 knots. UK military personnel[33] fly the mission using beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications operating from a Ground Control Station (GCS) at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada USA. Take-off and landing of the UAVs in theatre is accomplished by a launch and recovery element manned by a mix of US and UK military personnel using line-of-sight communications. A total of two air vehicles and one GCS have been deployed to Afghanistan. A third UAV is due to be delivered in mid 2008 and a second GCS later in 2008. Planned enhancements include electronic surveillance and weaponisation of the UAV with multiple Hellfire missiles and GBU 12 precision guided bombs to improve prosecution of time-sensitive targets.

Hermes 450—A Formation/Higher Tactical level UAV capability was procured as a UOR and entered service from July 2007. The capability is provided as a service by Thales UK using the Hermes 450 UAV system. The air vehicle is launched by a contractor-provided external pilot and operated throughout the mission phase by Royal Artillery personnel, with control handed back to the contractor for the recovery and landing. Servicing and support are the contractor's responsibility. Hermes 450 is a medium-sized UAV that weighs about 450kg and has a wingspan of about 10.5m. It has an endurance of around 14 hours, but must remain in radio line-of-sight of the GCS. It operates at slower speeds and lower altitudes than Reaper. Up to 10 air vehicles and 6 GCS are being used, providing FMV ISTAR support in Iraq and Afghanistan with two concurrent missions possible in both theatres.

Desert Hawk 3—DH3 is a Lower Tactical level UAV system procured under UOR procedures in 2007. It is a hand-launched system that has an endurance of around 60 minutes. A total of 18 systems (144 air vehicles and 18 GCS) have been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan providing FMV ISTAR support to Battlegroup operations and below. The capability is operated by Royal Artillery personnel embedded in Battlegroups. A further five systems are being procured.

Source: MoD[34]

26.  We asked why the requirement for the UAVs acquired as UORs had not been identified earlier. AVM Butler told us that "in many cases they were identified earlier". The Hermes 450 UAV was acquired as a "stop-gap" filler because the Phoenix UAV system could not be operated effectively in a hot and high climate. The MoD had "a follow-on to Hermes 450 in terms of the Watchkeeper programme, which was already well established before…. the UOR provision of Hermes 450". The MoD already had in their plans the requirement for "a deep and persistent surveillance capability…. so arguably Reaper is filling a gap that we had already identified" and will be a contender for "that longer term programme". For Desert Hawk, he said that:

when we looked at the assessment of what we could get on time with the right process and dissemination capabilities, again it filled the gap adequately and we went in to buy it. In the slightly longer term, particularly based on the experience we are getting with Desert Hawk, we will look at how we fill that capability gap in the future.[35]

27.  At our evidence session on 13 May 2008 with representatives from UK defence trade associations, Clive Richardson representing Intellect told us that ideally the UK would have had its "own platforms and our own programme but that has not been funded over the years". Industry recognised the need to acquire UAV systems as UORs. However, Simon Jewell, representing the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC), stressed that the use of UORs to acquire UAV systems should not become the strategy to provide the capability in the longer term. SBAC would like to see:

the balance being maintained between developing national capability and supporting UOR capability for urgent operational requirements.

David Barnes representing the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Society (UAVS) of Great Britain considered that:

there is a danger, and the danger is in pursuing UORs and keeping them in service for a long time we will undermine our national capability to develop and deploy.[36]

28.  The MoD has acquired UAV systems for current operations as Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs). In its response to our Report, we expect the MoD to set out its future plans for the UAV systems acquired as UORs and where the future costs fall within the defence budget. We also expect the MoD to set out its longer term strategy for acquiring UAVs systems, given the concern expressed by industry that keeping the UAV systems acquired as UORs in service for a long time could undermine the UK's national capability in this area.

Different roles of UAVs on current operations

29.  The UAVs acquired as UORs for current operations vary substantially in size:

30.  The MoD acknowledges that the varied needs of each level of command could be met by a single platform type, but considers that the capability "would need to be driven by the most demanding requirement (long range, long persistence, very capable sensors). This could lead to disproportionate cost, delayed timelines and, at lower levels, excessive capability."[38] We sought clarification on the roles / tasks undertaken by the different UAVs on current operations. Chris Day, Business Executive, UAV Systems, Thales UK, provided the following overview:

there is a lot of activity going on by the guys in the infantry who are walking the ground who actually want to know, in very quick time, what is immediately ahead of them. That really means they have got to have command and control of it themselves. They have got to be able to hand-launch it. He wants to know what is 200 metres down that road; so he hand-launches his little UAV and within 25-30 seconds he knows what is ahead of him. That is what the mini UAV gives him. It gives him an ability to have command and control, and for him to actually be able to use that air vehicle to gain that information extremely quickly; but it places constraints on the system. It means it has to live with the infantry, the guys who are actually walking the streets on the operation. He cannot push around a 450 kilogram air vehicle; he needs something that can live in his pack—and that is where minis come from. When we are talking about operations in urban environments, built-up areas, little mini UAVs are absolutely the right thing to have. The key message to get across there is the mini UAVs can normally have a daylight sensor, just like normal televisions at home, or a thermal imager; they cannot have both. They do not have the ability to lift both sensors. If it is night-time you have got to sit there, break it apart and put a thermal on it. If it is daytime you put the TV on it. The other thing is, because they are model airplanes, and if any of you have seen model airplanes fly, they are not very stable; so the imagery is not particularly good, but it gives you the snapshot, and it gives you that bit of information that may make a difference.

He added that:

the big driver for moving from minis, to slightly larger platforms…. is all about the quality of the imagery and the range at which we can operate it. Now we are talking about a sensor that is very stabilised, that can sit and look at my face for 12 hours of the day; it can move very quickly through the environment, perhaps a speed of 100 knots, perhaps less. The little minis do 30 or perhaps 40 knots so they are a lot slower. The big platform also has the ability to carry other sensors, and the one I would like to talk about is something we call "synthetic aperture radar". What that really means, it is a radar that gives us an image that looks pretty much like something you would see on a television; it gives you an image. The real attraction is, when there is cloud most television cameras cannot see through cloud—no ability at all; you can leave your air vehicle on the ground—cloud, fog or mist, no capability at all. You put synthetic aperture radar on it and it sees through cloud; it gives the guys a clear image of everything that is stationary on the ground. We then link it to another bit of technology that allows us to see everything that is moving on the ground. Those radars weigh about 40 kilograms as a minimum…. I need a larger platform to lift it in the air…. I cannot do that with a mini; I need a bigger platform. You can start to see that the critical variable with UAVs—that is the air vehicles themselves—is the more payload you want, the larger the air vehicles…. The more sensors you want, the more capability, the larger the general platform. The other driver that links to things the Americans do is they like to fly higher. Little mini UAVs, those poor little television sensors, they are only good from about 300 or 400 feet to a 1,000 feet above the ground; if you fly higher than that imagery is not very good. You might say, "I want to fly at 5,000 or 10,000 feet", but you need a better sensor, so you move into the Hermes system. If you have then got a very large platform like the Predator, the Reaper or the Global Hawk, they operate at significantly higher altitudes, and one of the reasons is they carry a very significant sensor suite. They have to operate higher in order to keep them safe. Those are the sorts of variables which define where you pitch your UAVs.[39]

31.  Victor Chavez emphasised that another key variable in relation to UAVs was persistence, the ability to "remain on-task for very extended periods of time". If there was a need to watch one location "for 24 hours a day", this could not be done with a mini UAV. For such tasks it was important for the UAVs to remain undetected which required it to be at an altitude where is was not visible and could not be heard. Again, this could not be achieved with a mini UAV. [40]

Performance of UAVs on current operations

32.  Hermes 450 UAVs are operating in both Iraq and Afghanistan and Reaper UAVs only in Afghanistan. We asked how effectively the UAVs acquired as UORs had performed on current operations. AVM Butler considered that Hermes 450 and Reaper UAVs "have done extremely well and they have been battle winning capabilities beyond a shadow of a doubt". AVM Nickols added that:

for the style of operations, particularly the counter-insurgency style of operations, the ability to loiter over an area for very long periods, which allows you to watch what we call "pattern of life" so you can build up a picture of what is happening in a particular location is one of the great needs and, of course, that is one of the great strengths of a UAV and that is why they have been so successful. The other point to make perhaps in counter-insurgency, which goes back to an earlier question, is that they very much need to be intelligence-led. You can only find the insurgents through comprehensive intelligence, and that is why the wider ISTAR architecture, including the UAVs, is so important in this style of operations.[41]

33.  The performance of UAVs on current operations was referred to in several of the memoranda submitted to our inquiry. Intellect's memorandum states that "the UOR programmes have brought immediate and vital benefits, delivering assets into theatre within a short timescale and enabling increased force protection via improved ISTAR capability".[42]

34.  The MoD has acquired UAVs as Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) for current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These UAV systems, such as Hermes 450 and Reaper, are providing "battle winning capabilities" and are proving effective in the counter-insurgency style of operations which our Armed Forces are involved in.


35.  Reaper UAVs are procured from and operated from the US. AVM Butler acknowledged that the UK was "very heavily dependent" on the US, but told us that the situation was "not uncommon, and we are across quite a lot of our collectors". He added that the issue was about affordability and "to do it all in-house would be unaffordable". On the specific issue of operational sovereignty, he said that:

So, where there is a logical fallback and a sensible fallback and where we need to retain UK sovereignty, we seek to do so, but generally we are fairly comfortable in my arena working closely with the US particularly.[43]

He set out how the current operating arrangements with Reaper worked and the advantages to the UK:

at the moment, because it is a strategic asset and it is easier to link it into the air space control and the command and control piece, we actually operate it effectively over exactly the same system that the US operate it on, and again there is significant advantage by us being closely coupled with the US in the strategic environment because it makes things like tasking—we get the information from the totality of the Reaper system rather than just our own.[44]

36.  The UK was "almost entirely free" from the US in terms of how its Reaper UAVs were maintained. There were advantages to the UK in relation to upgrades as, if the US upgraded their Reaper UAVs, the UK "get the advantage of being able to buy into that at a relatively low cost". The same was true if the US upgraded the Reaper ground stations. AVM Butler added that "there has been a transition phase that we have gone through where we have relied very heavily on the US, but we are slowly coming away from that".[45]

37.  In terms of operational control over the deployment of Reaper UAVs, the UK had "entire freedom as to where we task them".[46] The US had no veto over how the UK used its Reaper UAVs and the UK did not have to inform the US where they were being deployed.[47] AVM Butler stressed that Reaper UAVs are a theatre asset and "are allocated on a theatre basis". He added that the UK did "not actually dictate where they are operated. They are operated against the highest theatre need, and bear in mind the people that decide that are both UK and US". AVM Nickols highlighted the advantages of this approach:

the benefit we get from putting them into this pool of assets is that, given that our area, particularly in Afghanistan, is one of the busiest areas, we gain more than we lose from that. We get more ISTAR out of the system than we, UK Limited, contribute to the system.[48]

38.  The UK's Reaper UAVs, acquired from the US, are operating in Afghanistan. They are delivering vital ISTAR capability at the Theatre/Operational level and the procurement of a US system has provided substantial advantages to the UK. The MoD has assured us that the UK retains operational sovereignty over its Reaper UAVs—it can maintain, upgrade and use them independently. This is an issue we plan to monitor closely. In its response to our Report, we expect the MoD to set out what issues might arise relating to operational sovereignty and the UAV systems procured from the US if the UK/US Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty is not ratified.

39.  On 6 June 2008, the MoD announced that an RAF Reaper UAV had, for the first time, used its weapon system in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan.[49] The issue of armed UAVs is considered later in our Report (paragraphs 141-143).


40.  The memorandum from Thales UK states that "in June 2007, Thales was awarded a UOR contract by the UK MoD to provide UAV systems to support UK forces on current operations…. Thales' swift response enabled the first in-theatre delivery to be achieved on 14 June 2007. First flight was on 20 June 2007 and Initial Operating Capability (IOC) was declared on 5 July 2007".[50] We asked what capability the Hermes 450 UAV system was delivering on current operations and what feedback had been received from our Armed Forces. Chris Day provided the following overview:

we have now achieved somewhere in the region of about 9,000 operational hours…. We support the MoD across a whole range of different types of operation. When we entered the journey, pretty much just over a year ago, the targets were tough and very difficult to meet; we had about six months to get this capability up and running, the regiment trained and ready to deploy; and more specifically, which has been one of the key areas that we have learnt probably most about, is the logistic support that we need in order to support our guys out in both theatres; and we have picked up an awful lot of information associated with that. We have to work closely with the guys because, at the end of the day, they are using it on average for about 14 hours a day—that is two air vehicles up each day for about 14 hours a day, every day of the year—sometimes for durations of 100 hours consistently.

Nick Miller, Head of UAV Systems, Business Development, Thales UK added that;

Feedback from operations have said that this is extremely advanced, and an enhancing capability. It provides full motion video; and an electro-optic and infra-red camera is onboard the unmanned vehicle, and provides that video and intelligence throughout the battlespace command for the land-based commander, both through forward air controllers, through remote viewing terminals or laptops, but also into the ground infrastructure in both theatres. So it is providing that battle-winning capability with electro-optic infra-red intelligence.[51]

41.  We sought further details on how the Hermes 450 UAV system was actually benefiting troops on the ground. Chris Day explained they had a remote video terminal—"a manned, portable television screen with a simple antenna", which gave them "a clear view of what is going on in compounds…. a clear view of what is going on over the hill…. a clear view of what is around the corner… a clear view before they actually enter that building".[52]

42.  We commend Thales UK for the speed at which it delivered the Hermes 450 UAV system to our Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan following the award of the UOR contract. The system is providing vital high quality ISTAR information to our troops on the ground.

Lessons learned from current operations

43.  We examined the broad lessons learned from operating the UAVs acquired as UORs on current operations.


44.  UAV systems include platforms, sensors, data links and ground control stations and we asked which of these areas could be improved. AVM Butler considered that all of these aspects could be improved, but the MoD probably needed to concentrate more on the direct, process and disseminate parts of the chain as "generally in collection terms now we are getting reasonably good". He added that "you can always improve on all of them. It is just that the DPD is probably the bit where we need to make slightly more effort now than we have done hitherto".[53]

45.  We note that, from the experience of current operations, the MoD is broadly content with the assets it has, such as UAVs, which collect ISTAR information. However, the MoD considers that further improvements are required in relation to the Direct, Process and Disseminate elements of the ISTAR chain.

46.  We asked what the MoD was doing to improve the Direct, Process and Disseminate elements of the ISTAR chain and what specific programmes would deliver these improvements. AVM Butler said that:

If you look across my portfolio, the vast majority are stand-fast areas where we are simply updating collectors to keep them current and operationally viable. The vast majority of what I am doing in my area is based around the DPD effort. For example, we have got one of the biggest IT programmes in Europe currently running with DII, which will enable us to move information across the battlefield[54], and we have a programme in the slightly longer-term called DABINETT, which is effectively joining up the dots.[55]

The National Audit Office (NAO) report Ministry of Defence: The Defence Information Infrastructure was published on 4 July 2008.[56] The NAO reports that throughout 2005 and early 2006 problems emerged with two key elements of the programme which have "caused major delays to the rollout of the first stage of the DII Programme". The end date for the installation of Increment 1 of DII is "running 18 months late against the estimated latest completion date at contract signature".[57]

47.  Our inquiry has focused on UAVs and their contribution, primarily as collectors of ISTAR information, to current and future ISTAR capability. The MoD has a number of key programmes, such as Defence Information Infrastructure and DABINETT, to improve how the ISTAR collection effort is directed and how the intelligence and information collected is processed and disseminated. In its response to our Report, we expect the MoD to provide us with an update on the progress made to date on these two key programmes. We plan to examine the Direct, Process and Disseminate elements of the ISTAR chain in future inquires into ISTAR.

48.  We examine the issue of exploiting the ISTAR information collected in Part 4 of our Report (paragraphs 105-111).


49.  The Royal Aeronautical Society's memorandum notes that UAVs are largely invisible and inaudible from the ground, which "when combined with persistence makes them a formidable capability especially over difficult and hostile terrain". However, should the platform be identified by the enemy:

it is potentially more vulnerable to counter measures as reaction to ground fire may be slower, and the system intrinsically less able to evade hostile action.[58]

50.  On 23 April 2008, it was reported in the media that the RAF had destroyed a Reaper UAV which had crash landed in Afghanistan.[59] The MoD recognises that UAV operations involve a degree of risk and some losses can be expected. The MoD's memorandum provides the following details of UAV losses on current operations:

  • On 9 April 2008 a Reaper air vehicle made a forced landing in southern Afghanistan. Sensitive items were recovered and the remaining wreckage destroyed. The forced landing was being investigated and mechanical issues were suspected. The MoD was seeking to replace the UAV.
  • A Hermes 450 air vehicle crashed during an attempted landing in difficult weather conditions in Iraq in January 2008.
  • As at the end of February 2008, 27 Desert Hawk mini-UAVs have been lost over the previous 12 months.[60]

51.  We recognise that when UAVs are operating in hostile environments some losses can be expected. It is essential that the risk of such losses is minimised, particularly in relation to the large UAVs such as Reaper which carry sensitive payloads. In its response to our Report, we expect the MoD to set out the lessons identified from the UAVs lost on current operations, how it plans to address them, and to update us on the number of UAV losses.


52.  In acquiring UAVs for current operations, the MoD has taken a different approach to traditional procurement methods. Intellect's memorandum states that:

Some of the UAS UOR programmes have strayed from the traditional asset acquisition model of procurement: both the Hermes 450s and the Desert Hawks are provided as a managed service, where the MoD is procuring 'ISTAR by the hour'. This alternative—and overtly capability based—model may provide useful lessons for the future delivery of UAS".[61]

53.  The memorandum from Thales UK states that for the Hermes 450 UAV system the "UOR is being fulfilled by Thales through a highly innovative service provision contract ("ISTAR by the hour")…. The contract includes the provision of Hermes 450 UAV systems, as well training of the MoD staff in the use and maintenance of the system, and the provision of Contractor Logistic Support (CLS) and programme management services".[62]

54.  We note that for some of the UAVs acquired as Urgent Operational Requirements, the MoD is using new approaches to contracting such as "ISTAR by the hour". We welcome new approaches to contracting for defence equipment, particularly where such approaches improve reliability and availability. We look to the MoD to evaluate whether these new approaches are delivering the expected benefits and, if they are, to consider how they might be used more widely.

Watchkeeper programme

55.  The MoD's memorandum stated that "the only Defence funded programme to field an operational UAV capability is for the Watchkeeper tactical UAV system" and provides the following information about the programme:

Main Gate approval was given in mid-2005. Watchkeeper is currently expected to reach Initial Operating Capability in the second half of 2010 and to reach Full Operating Capability in 2013. The system is being developed from the Hermes 450 system currently operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.The programme is due to deliver (including attrition stock) 54 air vehicles and 15 GCS and will provide the capacity to conduct up to 12 concurrent missions (or "lines of tasking"). It will be operated by 32 Regiment Royal Artillery. Watchkeeper is intended to support Land operations and is capable of carrying simultaneously three types of sensor: electro optical/infra-red FMV; SAR [Synthetic Aperture Radar]; and GMTI [Ground Moving Target Indication]. In addition, it will carry a laser rangefinder/target marker. It will have UK-specific data links, have an automatic take off and landing capability and be able to use tactical landing strips. Overall, Watchkeeper provides greater capability compared to Hermes 450 and, subject to operational circumstances at the time, the intention is that it will start to take over from Hermes 450 from 2010.[63]

56.  Thales UK is the prime contractor for the Watchkeeper programme. Victor Chavez told us that "Watchkeeper is absolutely state of the art" and he considered that "There is nothing in the States [US], I believe, that is significantly in advance of Watchkeeper…. even though it was based originally on an Israeli UAV design, the system components, the communication systems, the sensor systems and so on are derived on a best in class basis from around the world: the data links, for example, very important in terms of international interoperability, are bought from the US; the radar system is being manufactured by Thales in the UK".[64]


57.  The Major Projects Report 2007 provides details of the progress of the programme against the approved cost and in-service date which are set out in Table 3 below. Table 3: Progress of the Watchkeeper programme against the approved cost and in-service date
—   —  Cost

—  £ million

—  In-Service Date


—  Approved at Main Gate —  920—  February 2011
—  Current forecast —  901—  June 2010
—  Variation —  -19—  -8 months

Source: National Audit Office[65]

58.  In its memorandum, Thales UK stated that the programme is on track for the planned in-service date of 2010. The most recent milestone was the successful first flight of the Watchkeeper air vehicle which took place on 16 April 2008.[66] AVM Butler told us that the MoD was "fairly hopeful that we will get something in towards the end of 2010, all things being equal".[67] Nick Miller informed us that following the first flight of the air vehicle, the company was "now starting the integration phase and current testing" and the programme would be ready for the 2010 in-service date.[68]

59.  We note that the Watchkeeper UAV programme is currently forecast to be delivered within the approved cost and to the planned in-service date. We look to the MoD to identify the factors which have resulted in the good progress to date on this programme and how they could be applied on other equipment programmes.


60.  We asked how different the Watchkeeper UAV system would be from the Hermes 450 UAV system. AVM Butler said that the Watchkeeper system would bring many of the capabilities currently on the Hermes 450 "but better because clearly it is a longer term programme". It will have have:

better rough-field landing characteristics; it will have better sensors because they will be better integrated and they will be a better system, so it is a significant advancement over the current Hermes 450.[69]

61.  We followed up this issue with the witnesses from Thales UK. Nick Miller said that there were two elements of Watchkeeeper which were different from Hermes 450:

There are the advancements in the air vehicle itself; and of course there is the network ground infrastructure…. The air vehicle itself is a dual payload configuration, so it can take the EO/IR camera as well as the radar together—electro-optic and infra-red—and additionally a more sophisticated SAR GMTI radar. It has an all-weather operational capability; so it has de-icing systems built in. It has got enhanced structure integrity with an adapted wing fuselage construction. Autonomous flight capability and auto take off and landing. Of course, the additional maintenance and access to subsystems is improved. The advanced duplex avionics on board and the enhanced landing gear.. So there are many aspects within the air vehicle of a significant difference. On the ground infrastructure side you have got the exploitation, communication dissemination that we discussed as a fundamental difference of the Watchkeeper system; and of course dual data links; the ability to pass information securely around the battle space. All this is required because Watchkeeper has got to provide a worldwide capability. Armed Forces can be deployed anywhere in the world and in climate conditions that are different from current theatres. Of course it has got the ability to be flexible for additional operational sensors in the future. You can see we have built into the growth future of Watchkeeper not only the air vehicles but also the ground network enabled infrastructure.[70]

62.  We sought further information on the additional capabilities which Watchkeeper would provide in terms of the dissemination of ISTAR information. Nick Miller explained that:

The Hermes 450 system is basically a collector at the moment of image intelligence, and provides the basis of that intelligence to the land component. What Watchkeeper brings as a system is much more of a dissemination, communication and network system. What we are learning from the Hermes 450 is how we grow that path towards the full integrated system where the information is passed throughout the intelligence. Hermes is a collector; is providing the right imagery, down to the right ground operator at the right time; but the next step forward is to pass that information to all the necessary players across ground infrastructure, across air vehicles, across all the different land component commanders. There is a difference between the collector system of Hermes and the Watchkeeper system of the future; which is why the ground infrastructure is so important in Watchkeeper.[71]

63.  In its memorandum, Intellect states that "programmes already in development—notably Watchkeeper—show that the next generation of UAVs will offer substantial technological improvements over current models".[72]

64.  We note that, when it enters service, the Watchkeeper UAV system should provide substantial advancements over the Hermes 450 UAV system both in relation to the air vehicle and the ground network enabled infrastructure.


65.  We have taken a close interest in the issue of sovereign capability relating to defence equipment programmes. It has been a central issue on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, which we have examined in a number of our inquiries. Sovereign capability is about the UK being able to maintain, upgrade and use equipment independently. The vehicle for Watchkeeper is derived from the Hermes 450 which was developed by an Israeli company.[73] We asked whether the UK would have sovereign capability in relation to Watchkeeper when it entered service. John Howe, Vice Chairman, Thales UK explained that the vehicle for Watchkeeper was being developed and produced in the UK in a joint venture with Elbit, an Israeli company. Victor Chavez told us that:

right at the outset of Watchkeeper MoD placed upon us some fairly stringent requirements in terms of sustainability of supply of all aspects of the system in the UK, because obviously we wanted to ensure that the UK had ownership of the intellectual property associated with all aspects of that; and hence the creation of the joint venture, which is based in the UK, to manufacture and to own and to hold that IPR for the air vehicle.[74]

66.  We asked whether the UK would be able to maintain and upgrade Watchkeeper independently. Victor Chavez said "absolutely" and explained that this was the reason why they had created a joint venture in Leicester which holds the intellectual property. John Howe added that "Watchkeeper is being built in the UK, whereas Hermes 450 is an Israeli project".[75]

  1. The air vehicle for the Watchkeeper UAV system is derived from the Hermes 450 which was developed by an Israeli company. We note that a UK joint venture for Watchkeeper has been created and will hold the intellectual property. Thales UK assured us that the UK will have sovereign capability relating to the Watchkeeper UAV system.

18   Ev 61 Back

19   Ev 69 Back

20   Ev 77 Back

21   Ev 57 Back

22   Ev 56 Back

23   Q 231 Back

24   Ibid Back

25   The Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) Flight Plan for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in NATO, 10 March 2008, page 3 Back

26   Ev 77 Back

27   Ev 56 Back

28   Q 229 Back

29   Q 198 Back

30   Ev 52 Back

31   Ev 49 Back

32   With crosswind limits and the lack of diversion ability of UAVs, operational flying is limited to around 11 hours so that 5 hours of fuel is kept in reserve in order to keep the UAV airborne if necessary.  Back

33   39 Squadron RAF, working closely with Joint Force personnel in theatre. Back

34   Ev 66-67 Back

35   Q 8 Back

36   Q 115 Back

37   Ev 66-67 Back

38   Ev 52 Back

39   Q 207 Back

40   Ibid Back

41   Q 10 Back

42   Ev 62 Back

43   Q 39 Back

44   Q 40 Back

45   Q 41 Back

46   Q 42 Back

47   Qq 43-44 Back

48   Q 45 Back

49   Ministry of Defence website, Defence News, 6 June 2008, RAF Reaper fires weapons for first time Back

50   Ev 70 Back

51   Q 200 Back

52   Q 206 Back

53   Q 11 Back

54   DII will work with communication bearer systems such as Bowman and Skynet 5 to achieve this. Back

55   Q 12 Back

56   National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: The Defence Information Infrastructure, HC 788 Session 2007-2008 Back

57   Ibid, para 8 Back

58   Ev 56 Back

59   "RAF destroys £10m spy plane in Afghanistan", Daily Telegraph, 23 April 2008 Back

60   Ev 67 Back

61   Ev 62 Back

62   Ev 70 Back

63   Ev 67 Back

64   Q 198 Back

65   National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007, Project Summary Sheets, HC 98-II, Session 2007-2008, 30 November 2007, pp 164-165 Back

66   Ev 71 Back

67   Q 58 Back

68   Q 212 Back

69   Q 56 Back

70   Q 211 Back

71   Q 205 Back

72   Ev 64 Back

73   Q 198 Back

74   Ibid Back

75   Q 217 Back

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