The programme to replace the only UAV currently in service with the UK, the tired, old and fairly useless Phoenix UAV, has started to take shape. On 18 Mar 04 final bids for the £800M Watchkeeper Tactical Unmanned Air Vehicle (TUAV) contract were submitted to the MOD by the remaining two contenders still bidding for the programme – Northrop Grumman and Thales UK. The demanding specification drawn up for Watchkeeper resulted in both companies offering both short and long range UAVs to provide a mix of the necessary capabilities.
Northrop Grumman offered the RUAG Ranger UAV that is currently in service with the Finnish and Swiss forces, together with the RQ-8 Fire Scout. Thales UK offered versions of the Elbit/Silver Arrow Hermes 180 and 450, renamed the Watchkeeper WK180 and the Watchkeeper WK450, with both vehicles specifically adapted to meet the Watchkeeper specification. The winning vehicles would be expected to operate from unprepared, semi-prepared or prepared launch sites and could involve the smaller UAV undertaking one function or the larger UAV completing a number of functions during a single mission.
The payloads carried by the UAVs would include Electro-Optical (EO) and Infra-Red (IR) sensors and a laser target designator. The US Government gave approval for the APY-8 Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to be offered to equip either the Fire Scout or the Hermes WK450. The APY-8 SAR can provide a 4in imaging resolution from 35,000ft together with a Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) and will be manufactured in the USA. Data from the UAVs will be transmitted in near real time, either via a data link or more likely via an aircraft, such as the Sentinel R Mk1 or Nimrod MRA4, acting as an airborne relay. It was probably significant that of the four system on offer, three of them, the RUAG Ranger, the Watchkeeper WK180 and the Watchkeeper WK450, were all Israeli designed UAVs that would be built under licence. This time around the UK decided to take the sensible option of purchasing proven equipment from a manufacturer with a track record in successful UAVs, rather than attempt to get BAe or some other company with no track record in developing a single decent UAV, to try and cobble something together.
On 20 Jul 04 it was announced that Thales UK was the final preferred bidder for the next phase of this programme. Thales UK will now enter into final contract negotiations to determine the number of systems, sensor packages, the precise configuration and delivery time scales. The formal contract signature for the demonstration and manufacture phase is expected to take place before the end of 2004 with the initial operating capability achieved by 2006 and full capability by 2008. Both the WK180 and WK450 will be produced at a new factory built alongside the existing Thales UK facility in Leicester.
The Watchkeeper system is expected to remain in service for about 30 years, however, given the technical advances that are bound to occur during this period, I suspect they may actually be in service rather less time. Provided the necessary infrastructure is in place to adequately support the winning contenders, always a problem with the cash-strapped MOD Budget, the two vehicles selected should make a significant contribution to the Network Enabled Capability the MOD is aiming to have in place by the end of the decade.