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Boxed Up, Barely Used and 4 Years Late: Watchkeeper, the Army’s “Affordable” £1.2bn Drone Program



A landmark Ministry of Defence order for 54 battlefield drones that was hailed by ministers a decade ago as an “affordable solution” will be four years late and cost £1.2bn – some £400m more than the public was first told.

The order for the Watchkeeper drones was announced by former Defence Secretary John Reid at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005 when he agreed costs of £800m and told Parliament they would start being ready for service five years later.

He also told taxpayers the bespoke order – Britain’s biggest ever on drones – would be “key to battlefield surveillance of the future” and a major boost to the country’s long term involvement in the technology.

Yet 10 years after the contract with a consortium led by French defence giant Thales was signed, only 33 of the fleet have been delivered.

In all, only three have actually been used in active operations – belatedly in Afghanistan just weeks before the troop withdrawal of late 2014, and for a total of 146 hours, equivalent to two days’ flying each.

At the end of June, those three were among only eight under Army control – at Boscombe Down on the Salisbury Plain where they are now used for training. Twenty-one were at a testing centre in west Wales, where most were boxed up in MoD storage.

Since June, four more have been delivered by Thales to the MoD.

The Bureau investigation – carried out in collaboration with the Guardian – into the UK’s most ambitious drone programme comes three months after David Cameron tasked defence chiefs to examine how drones could help defeat ISIS.

But the current nature of the conflict in Iraq and Syria means it is unlikely Watchkeeper will be deployed there. Whereas other drones such as Reaper – which are flown by the RAF – are operated by satellite and can be controlled thousands of miles away, Watchkeeper is piloted by radio signals, so requires troops on the ground close by.

Whether Watchkeeper could be currently deployed in any great number even were there to be troops on the ground is also open to question.

The Bureau has learnt through a Freedom of Information request that the Army has only six Watchkeeper pilots trained to fly the drones. Military commanders expect to have 24 pilots ready by 2017, while at the peak of its future operations in “following years”, they would like 100 in “operational, instructional and assurance roles”.

Instead of all 54 being ready by April 2013 as first planned, software glitches, stricter aerospace regulations and Army staff shortages have meant the latest date for “full operational capability” is now 2017 at the earliest – a delay of at least four years.

Even hitting that target “will require considerable further development”, the MoD has conceded.

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