Watchkeeper drone during its first flight milestones. Photo: Thales UK

The French Ministry of Defense plans to conduct an operational assessments and flight trials of the Thales Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) beginning 2012, under the 2010 Lancaster House cooperation treaty with the UK. Becoming the dominant tactical reconnaissance and target acquisition system for the British Army, the Watchkeeper UAS system currently being fielded by the British Army. The system is considered Europe’s largest and most advanced tactical UAS system. Following more than 400 missions, (of which 200 hours were performed with the Army), the Watchkeeper system continues field trials with the British Army toward its induction into service.

The announcement was made yesterday after a bi-lateral meeting in London between UK Secretary of State for Defence Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. The French government will allocate eight million euros for this evaluation.

Victor Chavez, Chief Executive of Thales UK, said: “The battle-winning operational edge that UAVs bring to operations is well understood and these systems are rightly a central pillar of UK-French defence collaboration. The announcement today that France will undertake trials of Watchkeeper demonstrates both nations commitment to cooperation on the battlefield and in the development of this strategically important sector”.

The French MOD is planning to expand the use of UAS in coming years. Currently the French Air Force operates the Harfang, based on the Israeli Heron I, while the Army uses the Sperwer tactical UAS (SDTI) developed by Sagem DS of France. According to plans, both systems will be replaced by enhanced systems. For replacement of the Harfang, France is considering the Heron TP, to be produced and equipped by Dassault under a cooperation with IAI while the Watchkeeper is evaluated as the SDTI successor.

On their meeting the French and British ministers agreed the the launch of another collaborative demonstration programme, for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), an other unmanned combat air system (UCAS) that could become operational in 20-30 years time. At present the two governments agreed to spend 12 million euros ($14.5 million) with British BAE systems company and the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation, to evaluate possible designs for the FCAS. The two companies are leading parralel research programs – Taranis and Neuron, with flying demonstrators scheduled for flight trials next year.

The collaboration between the UK and France will deliver direct cost benefits, technological advances and operational flexibility to both sides, said Pierre Eric Pommellet, SVP of Thales Defence Mission Systems. “The twinning of the British Royal Artillery 32nd Regiment and the French Artillery’s 61st Regiment, whose relationship will only be deepened by joint operation of Watchkeeper, are the embodiment of the human links which are being formed across the Channel,” Pommellet added.

Victor Chavez emphasized: “Industrially, UAVs are central to the defence sector’s renewal over the next period, and there are huge opportunities for European companies to succeed in this growing market. Watchkeeper, as Europe’s largest UAS programme, positions Thales as a leading company in the design, development and deployment of UAS systems.

The delivery of Watchkeeper equipment to the British Army is on track and over 200 hours of flying trials have taken place. Watchkeeper is expected to replace the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAS, a Thales tactical UAV service provided as an Urgent Operational Requirement, which has already flown more than 65,000 hours in Afghanistan and Iraq, providing life-saving intelligence and reconnaissance.

The Watchkeeper system, based on an enhanced Hermed 450B air vehicle configuration, is built in the UK. This vehicle is designed as the first tactical UAV to meet European airworthiness criteria – completing over 100 flights in the UK as part of its trials programme. Its mission payloads comprises multiple high-performance sensors. The basic platform is delivered in a dual-payload configuration, that includes enhanced electro-optic / infrared sensors, with laser target designator, as well as an advanced synthetic aperture radar / ground moving target indicator radar (SAR/GMTI). The information and images collected by the airborne sensors are provided to a network of mobile ground control stations and remote viewing terminals, where UK military operators will control the whole mission and interface within a network-enabled environment. High-resolution optical and radar image exploitation and dissemination provides valuable intelligence for operational commanders.

Thales UK, as Prime Contractor for the Watchkeeper programme, will also deliver equipment, training and facilities. Production of the Watchkeeper system will take place at the joint venture company U-TacS (UAV Tactical Systems Ltd), established by Thales UK and Elbit Systems in Leicester, UK.

Watchkeeper UAV during his first flight at MoD in Aberporth on April 14th, 2010. The Watchkeeper, tactical UAV (Unmmaned Aerial Vehicle), consists of the WK 450 UAV with advanced technologies sensors. This system is for all weather intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) use. This program is delivered to the British Army. Thales UK, as Prime Contractor for the WATCHKEEPER programme, will deliver equipment, training and facilities. Photo: Thales UK by Peter Russell
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