Watchkeeper Then and Now

Although certification to operate in non-segregated airspace and a number of minor technical issues have caused delays and cost over runs the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle system is scheduled to come into service later this year.


A spot of history first…

Prior to Watchkeeper

The first proper UAV in UK service (accepting the 1939 Queen Bee target system) was the MQM57-Falconers bought into service by 94 Locating Regiment Royal Artillery in 1964 which then comprised three Batteries with 57 (Bhurtpore) being the one to operate the Midge. There is a very brief glimpse of a Falconer at this British Pathe video clip, 2 minutes in. The Falconer was never called that in UK service but SD-1, an abbreviation of the US designation, ISD-1.

Replacing the Falconer was the Canadair Midge 501, a UK version of the CL89. The Midge was more or less a recoverable missile that flew a pre-planned route and was fitted with an IR linescan and traditional optical camera. Launched from a truck mounted rail and recovered by a parachute the Midge was primarily used as a divisional resource to locate the enemy’s artillery so they could be destroyed in a proper big guns artillery duel.

Bought into service 1971, again by 94 Locating Regiment Royal Artillery.

The videos below shows the CL-289 or AN/USD 502, an improved version of the CL-89.

Canadair CL-289 Surveillance Drone

Drohnenstart CL 289

Drohne CL 289 Start und Landung

The cameras from the Midges were also mounted on Army Air Corps De Havilland Beavers, still flown in the AAC Historic Flight.


Unmanned Drone ANUSD-501 Midge Salisbury Plain 1978 (Image Credit - Cold War Warrior)
Unmanned Drone ANUSD-501 Midge Salisbury Plain 1978 (Image Credit - Cold War Warrior)

Unmanned Drone ANUSD-501 Midge Salisbury Plain 1978 (Image Credit - Cold War Warrior)
Unmanned Drone ANUSD-501 Midge Salisbury Plain 1978 (Image Credit - Cold War Warrior)

Although not a huge success they were used during the 1991 Gulf War but reportedly not to a great effect.

Because the Midge did not provide real time imagery the Westland Supervisor programme was started although by the end of the seventies it was cancelled. In 1982 the Marconi Avionics Phoenix programme was initiated as a system to provide a real time, day/night interface, to the Battlefield Artillery Target Engagement System (BATES). Initial studies for BATES started in 1976 and progressed to full project definition in 1980, entering service many years later.

GSR 3486 defined the Phoenix system requirement, real time video imagery and the ability to retask in flight were key aspects. Trials commenced in 1987, evolving through a number of airframes and sensors until in 1995 Troop trials commenced and final trials commenced in 1997.

It entered service in 1998, yes, nearly 20 years after the requirement was outlined although to be scrupulously fair it entered ‘trials’ in the early nineties.

The system was supposedly named Phoenix because it rose from the ashes of the Medium Range Unmanned Aerial Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (MRUASTAS) programme. This was to be an unmanned rotary platform from Westland’s but proved to be impossible to bring to an adequate maturity.

In 1967 the Westland Helicopter future projects team developed the concept of an unmanned rotorcraft fitted with an electro‐optic sensor to provide the function of battlefield surveillance and target acquisition.  The concept envisaged deliberate penetration of hostile air space with a small “semi‐ disposable” aircraft as an alternative to manned systems that were seen as increasingly vulnerable

Phoenix was actually more forward looking than many people gave it credit for, bucking the trend for completely integrated air vehicle and sensor payload it consisted of the Air Vehicle Taxi (AVT) and Air Vehicle Pod (APD), with the pod containing the sensor and communications equipment.

Phoenix UAV in Kosovo
Phoenix UAV in Kosovo

We might even give it credit for the fast jet targeting pod that was to follow; the thinking was the pod could be upgraded or different payloads developed without expensive integration work on the air vehicle. The payload included a daylight sensor and thermal imager (BAE Systems Thermal Imaging Common Module (TICM II)), both of which could be locked onto a ground location for continuous coverage whilst the taxi was moving. Completing its bag of tricks was a data link into the artillery system, BATES; that could adjust the fall of shot.

The images below show the air vehicle and launch and recovery equipment

Phoenix launcher
Phoenix launcher

Phoenix UAV Ground Station
Phoenix UAV Ground Station

Phoenix UAV Recovery
Phoenix UAV Recovery

The fixed wing GEC/BAe Phoenix had Its first operational debut was in Kosovo where 13 of the 27 deployed were lost and despite a spot of face saving by the MoD was widely considered to be a bit of a failure, despite catching the Serbs in the act of flying Mig 21’s that had survived the NATO air campaign out of the airport at Pristina, least said about that the better, we would not want the sky gods to be faced with evidence of a lack of success of the air campaign!

Losses included two to enemy air action and three to training mishaps.

Operational use of Phoenix and others nations UAV’s in the Balkans clearly demonstrated their sheer usefulness and utility beyond the artillery spotting mission that had generally characterised similar tactical systems. Much was also learned, the hard way, about operational management and control of UAV’s, especially in a complex air environment with multi nation components.

The UK tried to circumvent the problem of slow authorisation by proposing to use a forward air controller in a Phoenix ground control station to direct Harrier GR7 strikes but the USAF senior leadership in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) refused to sanction the idea unless a satellite link could be installed to allow the CAOC to view the imagery and give the final authorisation of any strike. Needless to say, we ran out of war before the red tape could be untangled.

Operations in the Balkans also exposed slow and predictable UAV’s to enemy ground and air attack, the Serbs even had some success with flying a helicopter parallel to the airborne system and simply machine gunning them out of the sky, no need for MIG’s and AA missiles as used by the Russians in their spat with Georgia.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned, apart from their vulnerability to even half competent air defence forces, from operational use of UAV’s in the Balkans was the difficulty of matching a strategic air campaign to what were in effect, tactical assets being used for an operation type for which they were not designed for.

The ‘ownership’ of these tactical UAV’s was never, apparently, challenged.

A detailed analysis of UAV operations in Kosovo can be found at this link.

A few later during Operation Telic the Phoenix UAV had its brief moment in the sun.

Despite its relatively poor showing in the Balkans Phoenix was credited by General Brimms (GOC 1(UK) Armoured Division), along with Challenger and Warrior, as being the top 3 war winning assets in the initial stages of the Iraq war, operation TELIC.

The Phoenix provided for the first time situational awareness commanders had not had access to before. We flew in front of the commandos before they went into attack and provided up to date, real time information to commanders on the ground, enabling them to make key decisions before they went into battle and during the battle itself

Despite this glowing reference the bald figures were not good.

During the 138 sorties carried out by Phoenix in Iraq by 22 (Gibraltar) Battery, 23 were destroyed with 13 damaged, only 15% of these losses due to enemy action. The hot weather caused considerable problems which rendered it unusable from May onwards and enduring problems of radio interference on the data link were never resolved.

phoenix uav takes off

The last operational flight of Phoenix was carried out by Koehler’s Troop in May 2006, at Camp Abu Naji in Iraq. In 2008, Phoenix was withdrawn from service in March 2008, the image below shows the out of service parade at Roberts Barracks, Larkhill, on the 20th

Phoenix UAV Out of Service Parade
Phoenix UAV Out of Service Parade

Despite the limited success in Iraq how it ever got into service is one of the enduring mysteries of defence acquisition.

If anything, it described what we didn’t want.

In fairness to the Army, the RAF didn’t seem interested in UAV’s and some might be forgiven for thinking that they were having a head in sand moment whilst humming the Battle of Britain March, aircraft without pilots, a bloody outrage! That is probably unfair because the RAF does have a long history with unmanned systems but during the period in question, there was very little investment or activity in unmanned systems from the light blue.

It is all credit to the Army that they stuck with the concept through much pain and embarrassment. UAV’s have traditionally been used for artillery spotting, observing fall of shot and target assessment; hence the Royal Artillery’s vice like grip on the subject matter and glimpses of the potential provided by tactical UAV’s such as Midge and Phoenix clearly informed the requirements for Watchkeeper.



It was obvious that Pheonix would need replacing even before it entered service so a year after Phoenix limped into service in 1998 the MoD had started funding replacement studies.

DERA demonstrated the Observer system to serve as a test bed for future systems and this flew in in late 1998. Based on elements of the Cranfield Aerospace XRAE1 UAV it was rail launched and parachute recovered.

The Observer system was a short range and short endurance system but it incorporated advanced flight control and sensor systems.

Observer work was carried out under the Battlegroup Unmanned Aircraft (BgUMA) programme

BgUMA eventually evolved into two discrete requirements, SENDER and SPECTATOR. To complicate matters, SENDER was also part of the emerging reconnaissance trio, the others being ASTOR and the TRACER armoured reconnaissance vehicle. This was actually logical and fully coherent although it did make the programmes somewhat complicated and ambitious.

SENDER was a battalion relevant system with a 30km range and an electro-optical and IR sensor payload. SPECTATOR was a larger system designed for higher levels (divisional) than SENDER with a 150km range and dual electro optical and synthetic aperture radar payloads.

The requirement called for both to enter service in 2008

In 2000 SENDER and SPECTATOR were merged into the newly created WATCHKEEPER programme.

In 2002 it was revealed that the following air vehicles were being considered; Hermes 450, Predator, Eagle, Firescout, Shadow 200, Hermes 180, Ranger and Spectre 3.

The original SENDER and SPECTATOR split requirement was retained although the range and endurance of SPECTATOR was increased considerably.

Two consortia were down selected in 2003 for the Systems Integration Assurance Phase;

Northrop Grumman; with General Dynamics, BAE Systems, Ultra Electronics, Detica and STASYS offering the Fire Scout and RUAG Ranger air vehicles.

Fire Scout
Fire Scout

RUAG Ranger
RUAG Ranger

Thales-UK; with Aerosystems International, Elbit, and QinetiQ offering the Hermes 180 and Hermes 450 air vehicles

Hermes 180
Hermes 180

Elbit Hermes 450
Elbit Hermes 450

The statement of user requirement did not actually specify weights or indeed that an unmanned solution should be proposed but a collection of requirements for persistence, all weather operations and deployability.

In July 2004 Thales were selected as preferred bidder and contract award was in 2005 with a planned in service date of 2007. It was also announced that the smaller vehicle would now no longer be part of the programme although subsequent deployment/UOR purchase of the Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk UAV would tend to confirm an enduring requirement.

Watchkeeper first flights

Watchkeeper UAV First Flight

Watchkeeper First Flight

Watchkeeper has had a bumpy development ride but nothing like earlier systems and many of the most recent problems have more to do with certification for operation in civilian airspace than the more familiar technical.

Thales have assembled a broad collection of UK industry participants including;

Thales and Elbit formed a joint venture called UAV Tactical Systems Ltd to produce and support Watchkeeper.

As a stop gap for use in Afghanistan, the MoD has leased a number of Hermes 450’s from Thales in 2007 under Project Lydian, operated by a military/civilian mix of personnel. Civilian personnel manage the take-off and landings whilst members of 32 Regiment RA take control of the mission, or the bit in the middle. This Urgent Operational Requirement has covers 5 task lines and has clocked over 60,000 hours so far Some of the operational and logistic experience has also been fed back into the main programme.

The equipment is provided by Thales on a ‘by the air basis’ and the 6 air vehicles have reportedly collected the majority of airborne imagery collection.

Hermes 450 in Afghanistan
Hermes 450 in Afghanistan

Hermes 450 in Afghanistan
Hermes 450 in Afghanistan

Operational trials were due to start last October but technical issues discovered in flight trials and software integration have delayed the start date to ‘soon’

Introduction to Afghanistan will be on a rolling basis once these trials have concluded.

Air Vehicles and Associated Systems

A number of MoD programmes like DABINETT and DII(F) have coincided with Watchkeeper and the UOR deployment of the Hermes 450 and Desert Hawk have considerably moved the programme on. We can complain that it has taken too long and that at nearly a billion pounds for 54 air vehicles is hideously expensive but we should look at what the programme actually consists of.

It is crucially important to understand that whilst the Hermes 450 and Watchkeeper have more or less the same air vehicle they are not the same, far from it.

The additions include;

  • Substantial redesign of the existing air vehicle to provide greater payload, structural integrity and ease of maintenance
  • Enhancement of EO/IR sensor resolution
  • Addition of a SAR/GMTI radar sensor
  • Addition of a Laser designator/rangefinder
  • Redesign of the undercarriage to allow rough strip operations
  • Addition of an Automatic Take-Off and Landing (ATOL) system
  • Secure UK datalink and communications infrastructure
  • De-icing system for improved survivability and operating envelope
  • Integral expeditionary and mobile capability
  • Organic training facility
  • UK airworthiness qualification and Release to Service for UK training
  • UK logistic infrastructure, manufacturing and repair facility

Watchkeeper also sets out the infrastructure framework for other systems, this is absolutely crucial.

The twin sensor will allow one to cross cue the other without requiring a separate airborne system, the data link is encrypted, designed to avoid standing out in the EM spectrum and the engine has additional silencing.

Many see Watchkeeper as a simple unmanned air vehicle (UAV) but it has been more correctly described as;

A network enabled, end-to-end ISTAR and information management and exploitation system that provides accurate, timely and high-quality imagery and image Intelligence, collected, collated, exploited and disseminated to satisfy land manoeuvre commanders

The basic air vehicle is the Elbit Hermes 450 but it has been significantly modified to support additional payload (150kg) and operations in a wide range of environmental conditions. The Automatic Take Off and Landing system from Thales (called MAGIC, click here for brochure) uses portable microwave sensors to avoid reliance on GPS and Differential GPS although it can be augmented by GPS

The 450kg air vehicle has an operational altitude of just under 5,000m with an endurance up to 18 hours. Trials have also demonstrated operating the air vehicle near to the 150km distance from the ground control station requirement.

A take-off distance of 1,200m is needed which will no doubt limit deployment options even though the undercarriage has been strengthened to support rough field operations.

The Hermes 450 can be rail launched using a Robonic launcher but these have not been specified as part of the Watchkeeper programme. (click here for a brochure)

Robonic Hermes 450 Pneumatic Launcher stored in an ISO Container
Robonic Hermes 450 Pneumatic Launcher stored in an ISO Container

Hermes 450 and Robonic launcher
Hermes 450 and Robonic launcher

Hermes 450 and Robonic launcher
Hermes 450 and Robonic launcher


During the initial bid phase the US Government gave permission for the APY-8 Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) to be used on either the WK450 or Fire Scout.

The 32Kg 620W Thales I-Master (Ku-band 12.5 to 18 GHz) synthetic aperture radar / ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI).was eventually selected for Watchkeeper. I-Master was developed from the Racal POD SAR and includes technology from the Searchwater radar.

Thales iMaster SAR GMTI
Thales iMaster SAR GMTI

It can rotate trough 360 degrees operate up to 20km in strip mode and 15km in spot mode, able to detect slow moving targets such as vehicles or people out to 20km.

Working in conjunction with the I-Master is a 38Kg El-op CoMPASS IV (compact multi-purpose advanced stabilised system) electro-optic observation system that also includes a laser range finder and target designator.


From the product page

COMPASS IV can be configured with a variety of sensors to optimize your mission specific objectives. Optional sensors include an eyesafe laser rangefinder, daylight TV, spotter scope, laser area illuminator, laser pointer, and diode pumped laser designator. A step-stare function allows the capture of full-frame digital stills, which are geo-registered at the pixel level and can be tiled for high resolution area coverage.

Brochure here

The Compass is mounted in the front position and the I-Master, the rear.

The dual sensor system can be used to determine patterns of life, a reduction in road use might indicate presence of an IED, analyse moving targets, detect changes in the ground (footprints, tyre tracks) and cross cue the visual sensor for a closer look. There is a problem with this though because SAR works best at altitude and offset from the area of interest for a wide area view, the cross cuing currently in Afghanistan takes place between ASTOR/ASaC and Hermes 450 and takes advantage of the optimal operating conditions for these two different sensor types.

As usual, trade-offs have to be considered.

Watchkeeper Imagery composite
Watchkeeper Imagery composite

Watchkeeper Imagery composite
Watchkeeper Imagery composite

Watchkeeper Imagery composite
Watchkeeper Imagery composite

Additional payloads may be developed in the future to include SIGINT and radio rebroadcast although these would need to be low in weight.

Ground Equipment

Watchkeeper will have a dedicated Tactical Vehicle and Communications (TAC) party that will be embedded into a theatres Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) because of increasing airspace management and integration issues. As Watchkeeper will be operating in the same airspace as helicopters, other UAV’s, indirect fire and aircraft this high level of integration is vital to avoid accidents.

Watchkeeper Ground Station
Watchkeeper Ground Station


The Ground Control Station is housed in a 20ft ISO format container (happy days) supplied by Marshall and carried on a DROPS type vehicle or Pinzgauer. A complete system equipped for 24 hours operation will be deployable in a single C130 lift.


Much work has gone into operator workload reduction with two personnel in a single Ground Control System able to simultaneously operate 3 air vehicles using up to 4 ‘operators’ and a commander.

13 GCS will be delivered for operations with an additional 2 for training.

There has also been some work on developing a common ground control station infrastructure underpinned by a common standards based approach. Much like the General Vehicle Architecture (GVA) and emerging soldier and base architectures, a common physical, metadata, control, mission planning, analysis and dissemination standard would have far reaching implications across all three services.

What we definitely don’t want is the RN, Army and RAF each operating UAV’s, each of them having completely different ground control systems.


Watchkeeper will be operated by 32 Regiment Royal Artillery with a dedicated training facility at Larkhill.

Watchkeeper Training Facility at Larkhill
Watchkeeper Training Facility at Larkhill
Watchkeeper Training
Watchkeeper Training

32 Regiment was planned to deploy 4 Watchkeeper batteries, each with 16 air vehicles.

A battery is designed to support a Brigade and two Battle Group HQ’s

Because of the operating altitude of Watchkeeper compared to Phoenix the training requirement has risen significantly, this was a challenge. All operations are governed by the ‘Flying Orders Book’ which means they are conducted under the same rules as manned aircraft.

Other Arms and Services are also involved with Watchkeeper.

The FAA, MoD, and Watchkeeper partners have been striving for operation in non segregated airspace and beyond Parc Aberporth a limited area of Salisbury Plain has now been cleared with more work to follow.

Watchkeeper Training Area
Watchkeeper Training Area

The Royal Artillery have been evolving the UAS operating matrix taking into account experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and when the Future Force 2020 Army and Multi Role Brigade organisation is confirmed we may see other organisational structures emerge.

We sometimes complain about wanting an 80% system but Watchkeeper is a great example of the flip side of that argument. After several decades continuous experience it is finally looking like the technology and operating concepts will have matured and converged to finally deliver on the promise.

The Future and Questions

I am not sure the capabilities of Watchkeeper are fully appreciated, especially the ability to cross cue sensors, but how much growth is left in the air vehicle is unknown. Of course, discussing growth potential in a system that has yet to come into service might be unusual but although sensors generally get lighter there is a natural desire to ‘add more’

Growth potential is therefore a key factor.


The first question is will we end up with too many?

The programme will deliver 54 air vehicles 13 ground systems

Given that the SDSR clearly states that the maximum deployed scale for the British Army on an enduring basis will be at a Brigade (MRB) strength, is that far too many air vehicles.

Although the Army details of Future Force 2020 has yet to be announced and how this might dictate organisation of the operating Regiment(s) it is difficult to see the need for so many, even if the ‘with notice’ assumption of a Divisional scale deployment is retained.

Don’t forget, the operating Regiment or Battery in theatre does not need to have exactly the same equipment scale as those elsewhere in the deployment cycle, Whole Fleet Management could be equally applied to Watchkeeper as it is Challenger 2’s.

Can we make savings in support and manufacture costs by reducing numbers or should we simply let the programme run through to completion and accept those quantities as either attrition spares (not a ridiculous notion given the high UAV accident rate), re-purpose some of them or even offer some of them up for a multi-national, European or NATO pool.

Which brings me on to the next point; export.

France and Export

Thales has recently stated;

The French army has similar requirements to the British Army and is interested in replacing its SDTI [Sagem Sperwer] system with a high-performance, certified and financially attractive solution

A formal evaluation of the Watchkeeper system for the French armed forces will commence this year and conclude in 2013.

Given the recent announcements about the joint UK/French agreement on Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV development one wonders if France will follow through on this and seek another option, although of course, Thales is ultimately a French company.

What Watchkeeper does offer as a unique is the significant experience gained in civilian certification and the dual sensor integration.

Although there are no concrete proposals it might be a reasonable proposition to offer the system to NATO or European nations as a pooled resource.


During an interview at the 2011 Paris Air Show Major Matt Moore RA indicated that investigation into arming Watchkeeper had begun with the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) as a leading candidate. It is probably fair to that progressing the main project is a higher priority that arming but it is an interesting proposition and one which is definitely on the development roadmap, funds permitting of course.

To provide scale, the image below shows LMM mounted on the BAE Fury UAV

BAE Fury UAV and Thaless LMM
BAE Fury UAV and Thaless LMM

For fleeting or targets of opportunity acquired by Watchkeeper an organic weapon would reduce the engagement cycle (FIND-STRIKE) time considerably.

Low yield and precise weapons such as the LMM would be ideal because not only is it fast and precise, it also has a low yield and warhead design that suits the likely target types.

A number of options exist should the LMM not be suitable and there has been some considerable developments in 5-10kg guided weapon class such as the LM Shadow Hawk, ATK MAW and MBDA SABER


LM Shadow Hawk
LM Shadow Hawk

MBDA Saber

Trading off endurance for payload is not unreasonable but if the output of the air vehicles engine could be improved then payload might be increased.

It would certainly be desirable to arm Watchkeeper but then a couple of political issues hove into view.

The first is that of differentiation between an armed Watchkeeper and the Fire Shadow loitering munition and the second is that of treading on the toes of the RAF’s Reaper and future Reaper replacement programmes.

Given the already stringent training regime for joint and precision fire controllers I don’t think that would be an issue but I have to confess to scratching my head about Fire Shadow and wondering what it offers that a Watchkeeper with one or two LMM’s or free fall guided mortar bombs does not.


I have looked at potential maritime UAV’s in a couple of posts but not considered Watchkeeper.

Operating the air vehicle should be physically possible from CVF if the Robonic rail launcher and a simple arrestor system installed but this would no doubt impinge on flight deck operations and whether the Watchkeeper air vehicle is suitable for maritime use is open to question.

Integrating the MAGIC automatic take off and landing system with the complex electromagnetic environment on CVF might present another challenge.

Even if it were possible the question should be asked, why?

It would of course provide a great deal of benefit for an amphibious operation but the sensor fit might not be best suited to open ocean work.

Having a Ground Control Station onboard CVF, an Albion class or even as a modular fit might improve flexibility but because of the launching and recovery requirements, again, this might not offer much in the way benefit.

Probably a better approach would be to ensure the product of Watchkeeper can be disseminated throughout the maritime domain via DII and other systems and that work done on control systems, training and other aspects of the development is applied to other programmes.


Although the notion of ownership of equipment is sometime ridiculous because they operate in a joint environment there are a number of intriguing questions about where it sits within the armed forces as a whole.

The Royal Artillery have persevered with the concept of UAV’s despite little interest from the other services and are deserving of all due credit, especially given the sophistication of Watchkeeper and the training, doctrinal and operational concepts they have pioneered.

The Intelligence Corps provide image analysts and no doubt there will be representation from the other services in much the same way that the ASTOR/Sentinel system works.

However, in a reducing armed forces and given the likelihood that Watchkeeper will be operating from exactly the same deployed infrastructure and airbases as other fixed and rotary wing assets does it make sense to retain this legacy. They are no longer used for simple fire adjustment and the system will be closely integrated with other services.

Where do the Formation Recce units come into the Watchkeeper family, would they be best placed to operate them.

Is there merit in either AAC or RAF operating Watchkeeper and can we leverage the ASTOR/Sentinel working arrangements or should we just let the RA get on with their excellent work?

Another question is that of contractor support.

The Project Lydian Hermes 450’s have been operating well in Afghanistan and before that Iraq but with Watchkeeper, the Army will be reverted to a more traditional wholly owned and operated model. Could that be replicated where on enduring operations, elements of operation and maintenance are carried out by contractors under an availability type arrangement.

I don’t have an opinion, just asking if there are efficiency savings to be had by culling a few sacred cows?

About The Author

Think Defence hopes to start sensible conversations about UK defence issues, no agenda or no campaign but there might be one or two posts on containers, bridges and mexeflotes!

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June 7, 2012 12:54 pm

Excellent review, TD. I’ll certainly come back to this one. I was the Army desk officer at HQ LAND for WATCHKEEPER from 200-2003 so saw the inside story emerging.

Bit busy this afternoon, but a couple of initial thought which I’ll try to elaborate on this evening if anyone is interested:

JUEP sprang out of WATCHKEEPER, then became SUAVE, then the UOR procurements of armed UAVs.

Service politics! All sorts of “interesting” debates once the RAF woke up to UAVs in 2002.

WATCHKEEPER programme a good example of how a really switched on IPT Leader can run a complex programme well. Key personnel decisions included retaining the DSTL Scientist and Army Requirements Manager through a double posting.

There was very nearly a spin-off programme to use UAVs in the “armed recce role” as part of the whole attack aviation piece that was running in parallel with WATCHKEEPER. Would have happened if we’d gone for Firescout. However, the Thales CONOPS was significantly better than N-Gs, and I believe the logistic support costs of Firescout were significantly higher.

There’s a whole piece still to be fully explored on the Common Ground Station elements of both the ASTOR and WATCHKEEPER GCS – I’d long left, but heard later that it actually works pretty well.

Modern data radios can deliver FMV, allowing for many additional users to view imagery (i.e. without GCS).

We used Predator a lot in Bosnia in 95 – many of the Lessons Identified from that went straight into WATCHKEEPER URs.

Ditto the non-deployment of Phoenix to Afghanistan (too hot / high) – adjusted the WATCHKEEPER URs.

June 7, 2012 1:03 pm

oh, finally, the use of civilian airspace in the UK for training was always a worry. I’m not sure how that one got resolved – as far as I can remember Salisbury Plain was just about OK, but there were worries about a UAV going rogue and flying off by itself to crash somewhere, no doubt onto a school. And of course Parc Aberporth got heavily involved as an economic regeneration measure.

June 7, 2012 1:26 pm

So 150kg payload could carry 2-3 Brimstone?

I’m a little disturbed by the fact that this is not satellite controlled. An enemy therefore has an easier job jamming the control signals due to that inverse-square-law that appears to have been overlooked. As soon as that is solved and we have satellite control these are excellent and we should be proud of them.

I remember asking my Dad when I was young why the Army didn’t have radio controlled aircraft. This was at the same time that I was totally hooked on RC copters and planes. Neither of us could figure out a good reason other than control jamming and TV picture relaying.

June 7, 2012 1:32 pm

As of 2010, the RA was told that arming Watchkeeper would be a no-no for at least 4 years. No funding, other priorities.

The latest rumors are that Watchkeeper might very well not be armed. The MOD was shown the Raytheon Common Ground Control System (CGCS) offered for Scavenger. The notional idea is to have the CGCS compatible with Watchkeeper, Scavenger and Reaper for british service.
It would be manned by a RAF Flight Lieutnant as commander, and Royal Artillery/RAF UAS operators, and bring together Watchkeeper and Scavenger operations, with the Keeper’ doing the “simple” ISR work and the Scavenger carrying weapons, SIGINT pods and other equipment.

The compatibility with the Reaper is mainly sought because it is expected that Reaper will bridge the gap between the end of ops in Afghanistan and the arrival of Scavenger.
It is not even excluded yet that Scavenger ends up being a variant of Reaper: the joint BAE/Dassault development at the moment is only an option, not necessarily the solution.

And the Holland government has just said that they want to take a look at the MALE program already. They have no big liking for Dassault, and they might come up with decisions that might be unpleasant for Dassault, for BAE, and for the UK.

Also, i think the 4 batteries of 16 in 32 Royal Artillery have long been abandoned as a plan:

4×16 for a start gives 64, 10 more drones than are being bought;
4 batteries are insufficient to have one available for enduring deployment;
47 Regiment has re-roled to UAS and the Army has just finished the process of transforming 32 and 47 regiments into a combined UAS force composed of 5 homogeneous batteries, each with Desert Hawk III, T-Hawk and Hermes 450/Watchkeeper. The two regiments are both under 1st Artillery Brigade.
It is likely that this arrangement is maintained in the future as well, unless there have been recent, dramatic changes in the Army Restructuring work: the UAS force restructuring has been going on from when the SDSR was published, and was re-confirmed even when they announced the further cut down to 82.000 regulars.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 1:37 pm

Can anyone (maybe @James?) expand on the story behind the reasons for selecting the Hermes 450 platform over the others being considered?

Regards civilian certification: Autonomy and School-Crashing aside, my understanding is that one of the hurdles is noise from the rotary engine.

Other technicalities, such as the vehicle re-broadcasting voice from the Ground Control Station for Air Traffic Control purposes and transponder issues, had been overcome.

June 7, 2012 1:53 pm


all 4 bidders entered with pretty much the same systemic solution: big UAVs***, small UAVs, ground control / L&R capabilities, and a whole set of solutions covering each of the lines of development (only 6 back then), and of course a price. So it was not really that the Hermes 450 was chosen, really more appropriate to say that the Thales system which included Hermes 450 was chosen.

The selection of the Thales system was the IPTs choice, but they sub-contracted some of the work to DSTL, HQ LAND, HQ DRA, and DGD&D. We were asked to mark and give opinions on all of the lines of development solutions – I was responsible for marking the Training and CONOPS sections (CONOPS should have been DGD&D but the SO1 ISTAR post there was gapped, so my COS said that I’d do it to keep me out of trouble).

There were therefore about a dozen categories of scoring, and Thales would have come out on top overall, but how the marks were scored in all of the categories I don’t know.

I don’t believe that the price was ever discussed outside of the IPT, maybe with DEC ISTAR. I heard a whisper that the N-G solution was pricey in logistic support terms, but that’s only hearsay and could even be wrong.

*** While they all had both big and small UAVs in their solutions, numbers varied. The requirement was to provide a certain level of coverage in both geography and also in time. Depending on the capabilities of the big UAV (speed and endurance) drove the number of small UAVs that filled in the gaps.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 1:56 pm


Appreciated, thank you.

June 7, 2012 2:18 pm

Interesting, I didn’t know Watchkeeper was getting a SAR/GMTI radar. Goes some way to explaining why the army was so relaxed about SDSR early retirement of the Sentinel R1/ASTOR. Means they get full control over an asset that the RAF muscled in on with the Sentinel R1.

As a side note the AN/APG-81 fitted to the F35B will have an excellent SAR/GMTI capability in its own right which will be a very useful capability for the Marines and Army over any beachhead.

Desk Jockey
June 7, 2012 3:11 pm

Good piece with lots of research put into it. I felt that more should have been said by Reaper though. While I know it is a different system and used differently, a lot of the lessons learned fed back into Watchkeeper, including some of the project drivers.

For example, the Americans are incredibly sensitive about Reaper and the MOD always struggled to be able to do anything more with it outside of use in Afghanistan and Nevada. In short, it is a platform the UK cannot use or support outside of Afghanistan due to ITAR, airworthiness and lack of technical understanding. Watchkeeper was specifically intended to avoid these problems. Without knowing the details, I would speculate that this may have been a reason why some of the other candidates in the competition were rejected. The French are interested in this system for very much similar reasons and because Thales are involved.

June 7, 2012 3:19 pm

One of the “nice to haves” which certainly the Hermes 450 had (and I think also the 180, can’t quite recall exactly though) was a “future” ability for AH-64D to both control the UAV directly via data link, and also receive the imagery direct into their cockpit and display it on one of the screens. At least, there was payload space on the UAV for it, and Boeing confirmed that the AH-64D could be retro-fitted with a suitable datalink. i.e. the work was not yet done, but some engineers had spent time thinking about it and had some idea as to how they would go about it. Apparently this engineering design had been done in response to an Israeli requirement, and Elbit ported it across to WATCHKEEPER.

There’s a NATO working group that looks at this sort of thing, and have come up with 6 levels of UAV / AH interoperability, levels 0-5. This may drive some future development.

June 7, 2012 3:30 pm

@ Desk Jockey,

I’m not convinced that Firescout was rejected on ITAR grounds – clearly there were some ITAR issues, but I always found N-G to be really proactive and as open as they possibly could be within the bounds of US law. But I suppose it is unknowable about how it might have panned out if they’d won.

Desk Jockey
June 7, 2012 3:37 pm

@James – N-G and General Dynamics are nice and helpful people to work with. Certain aspects of the US Government, not so much! As they call the shots, that is where the power lies. The US were having significant issues with certifying Reaper, as you know the UK’s airworthiness requirements are possibly even stricter. I am sure these factors were in play, it is a common issue across many projects.

The US companies know this and know they have lost a lot of business as a result of ITAR. But as the US military has a bigger budget than everyone put together, they are hardly going to bite the hand that feed them.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 3:58 pm


Good stuff.

June 7, 2012 4:04 pm


no doubt there’ll be a full competition, but it would be a no brainer for Thales and Elbit to team together and offer the Hermes 900, and the complete interoperability of systems and support with WATCHKEEPER. I am not personally familiar with the Hermes 900, but good old Wiki says it can carry a 300 kg payload, which is quite a lot of ATGW-style or LMM missiles, or a hefty SIGINT sensor.

Just think, a family of three completely inter-operable UAVs and GCS, with an integrated support, training and logistics system, spanning all needs from tactical through to strategic – far too sensible!

Here we go:

June 7, 2012 5:00 pm

While im sure the hole system is very gd and the armys used foresight here but it does strike me the air vehicle has been flawed from the start and would guess it maybe still causing issues.

With all the modes to the airframe TD has mentioned it sounds like we pretty much designed a new a/c in the shell of what looked like a hermes 450 the question must be why. With adding all the necessary requirements for civil airspace operation im sure the weight growth is almost gone with continued worries of data link integrity and the possibility of some form of sense and avoid capability they air vehicle is looking very limited for the outlay. The london area has been class A airspace for sometime!

Why was the basic hermes 450 not procured and incremental upgrades over time introduced (we are effectively paying twice for that now albiet out of the uor budget). Was small manned a/c such as the dimond twinstar ever considered by the army solve a lot of issues and can carry the similar sensors and links.

Astor is wide area stand off sar i doubt watchkeeper is anywhere in the same ball park. I think its time to ditch the air vehicle or seriously truncate the buy and purchase a different aircraft off the shelf or possibly transfer reaper to the army instead.

June 7, 2012 5:18 pm


the basic driver for an unmanned system was endurance. Going right back to the original requirements, it was open to the companies to offer a satellite solution, or manned aircraft or airships or anything else which might have done the job. However, as much as we tried to write the requirements to be as “solution neutral” as possible (and this was in the early days of Smart Acquisition, when everyone was genuinely trying to make the system work properly), the requirements as stated implied an unmanned system as being the best blend of technology and maturity to meet them.

It is the companies themselves who select which air vehicles they will offer: MoD can only judge what is offered to them. So your question about 450 is perhaps best aimed at Thales, not the Army. I can’t speak for Thales, but I strongly suspect that what they did was to review the requirements, and find a UAV that most nearly fit them, and then work out how to make the required changes to meet them all.

Now, it is theoretically open to the MoD to review the market itself, decide what it wants, and just go straight to the company, but that’s not how the system works for major programmes. It does for some UORs or legacy kit upgrades. However, the MoD is trying to fill capability gaps, not to write requirements that meet exactly what an off the shelf system can already do.

If the MoD turned around to Thales now and said “ditch the 450”, the NAO would have puppies, and Thales would think “brilliant, we get paid for our previous work, now we’ll get paid more for new work”, and the end user wouldn’t have a capability at all until 2017.

ASTOR and WATCHKEEPER were always meant to be complementary and nested solutions. You can see that in the requirements for the previous generations of CASTOR and Phoenix.

June 7, 2012 5:49 pm

How stealthy are these systems?

What is stopping a peer enemy putting their own drone in the sky to shoot ours down?

Somebody must of thought it?

June 7, 2012 5:53 pm

Thanks james interesting. The endurance issue is interesting I assume from reading TD piece watchkeeper needs a trained pilot on the ground at all time in the control room? If so the only advantage a uav will have in endurance is fewer airframes. But the reason i mentioned diamond is we now have bought some and also now operate them on contract as a uav replacement in UK based exercises. There very cheap, the basic civil jet less costs less than 1m dollars each and very very fuel efficient. The even have a optionally manned version which granted may not have been available in 2002 but again things have moved on.

Can I ask on the negotiating stage once preferred bidder is selected can the MOD then decide on modifying its requirements or deferring requirements or not introducing them all at the same time or would that trigger another whole bidding process. I just get the feeling reading this that the hermes 450 was selected to be a cheap and quick off the self buy which required so many mods to meet the requirement we would have been as well to design a new a/c.

The nao may have puppies but moving reaper to the army shouldn’t lose capability or delay it further much more capable air frame with proper growth potential I see it a better fit than hermes 450.

June 7, 2012 5:59 pm


There are quite detailed technical issues involved in these platforms that have significant affect on their usefulness. Probably one of the main advantages is that we can do what we want with the platform and develop it as needed, e.g. satcom, increased engine power, plug and play sensors.


Your proposal to fit satcom is an excellent issue of the “hidden” issues with UAS. If we did everything over the satcom we could simply not afford to operate these platforms. Data rates are extremely expensive and you’re transmitting FMV and possibly SAR information as well. Going with a conventional system limits range but is far cheaper with much more bandwidth available.

@Desk Jockey

The UK has now set up an additional squadron of Reaper to operate out of RAF Waddington rather than Creech AFB. I would guess that UK personnel would remain at Creech until post-ghan but future operations will be from Waddington. But your main point of the issues with Reaper are fairly spot on.


You may have to rejig your Reaper/Scavenger article soonish depending on what comes/came out of PR12.

June 7, 2012 6:05 pm


Signature isn’t really reduced enough to be useful when coupled with limited manoeuvre performance.

Nothing to stop a peer enemy arming their drones for air-to-air, but our Typhoons or F-35s will have already shot them down…

These platforms are not currently survivable in contested airspace, but how likely are we get into that situation. Destruction of enemy air defences (including fighters) is pretty much the first task of any decent campaign we’ll run.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 6:11 pm


Is there an LMM package planned for the smaller F-35B weapons bay to defend the drones?

June 7, 2012 6:47 pm

Why do I get the feeling these expendable drones are getting less expendable by the hour?

June 7, 2012 7:05 pm


WATCHKEEPER does not need a trained pilot. LCpls operate them. The Kevins have a different opinion for the large UAVs they operate, normally justified by having to operate in mixed airspace. I don’t think that’s really true. We operated JUEP (a Hermes 450) in highly congested airspace alongside the US Navy, and once some deconfliction routines had been established, not a problem at all. To me, the Kevins are on a job-saving push. There actually is an argument for a pilot to be involved in the mission planning, but actually flying the thing, not really.

On the contracts, there’s always a negotiation, and things can move around a little. However, they cannot move around too much as the companies that lost will complain. There’s some EU law on this called Alcatel, I think.

You missed my earlier point. Hermes 450 was not selected for WATCHKEEPER. The Thales WATCHKEEPER system was selected. I think you are getting too focussed on the air vehicles and not other equally critical, and possibly more risky or more capable, elements. Comms, for example, or training and logistic support. The air vehicle is little more than an expensive model aircraft. The system software for example costs more to develop than all of the air vehicles to buy, which makes some of the media’s obsession with hardware look a bit silly.

I’m not sure the Army would want Reaper. It does Deep Strike, which is what the Kevins are set up to do.

June 7, 2012 7:15 pm

@ Hannay & TOC

My thinking is a peer enemy would know what toys we would be bringing by just a quick flick through Janes’.

I find it hard to believe in these days of RADAR systems that can track tennis balls at super sonic speeds there isn’t a cheap system that can detect something the size of a small car, doing a hundred knots, and loitering above likely targets. Isn’t that why the fighter ‘plane was developed to shoot down ‘planes doing spotting for artillery during WW1? Just a thought.

June 7, 2012 7:54 pm


I’m with you on the stealth thing.

Why do they have a V-tail if it’s not to avoid radar reflection – it’s not the easiest thing for control!

So why the V-tail and no other stealth features – massively thick wing profile (yes, I know, for low-speed efficiency, but allthesame) and a cylindrical body?

They may be great against the Taliban, but a credible opponenet I’m not so sure. Is it possible they are supposed to operate within the dome of protection offered by Aster?

June 7, 2012 8:21 pm


CAP 722 unmanned systems operations in uk airspace mandates a trained pilot is required for any aircraft over 150kg in weight so if there not training pilots regardless of rank its not flying in the uk and must meet EASA aircraft airworthiness requirements.

The other systems are important i agree but I assume the aircraft is the primary means of launching the sensors to gather the data i fear the air vehicle chosen may end up comprising the whole system but if you thinks its acceptable ill not argue.

Reaper isnt deep strike its benign over the horizon recon.

June 7, 2012 8:38 pm


I’m not an expert on airspace regulations, but the UK has been flying Phoenix (well over 200 kgs) in the UK for quite some time, and other types of UAVs. There must be some let-out clause in the regulations as I am unaware of any Army-operated UAVs having had pilots. The WATCHKEEPER establishment does not include any pilots either unless something fundamental has changed that I am unaware of in the last couple of years.

Reaper seems pretty heavily armed to me to be an benign over the horizon recce asset. Strictly speaking, it is an intelligence asset with a Deep Strike capability – recce is a tactical activity. It has had integrated onto it Paveway 2, Hellfire missiles, Sidewinders and the JDAM. I don’t know where to find figures for the number of lethal missions it has flown, but every week we are hearing of Afghans or Yemenis being blown apart by Reaper strikes.

June 7, 2012 8:50 pm

@ Simon

I don’t think the dihedral tail is a stealth feature more to do with the low speed of the aircraft.

What I want to know is how visible is it to the opposition? If it isn’t any use against a peer enemy really it isn’t much use at all. And if it is worth using against a peer enemy it is worth them shooting it down.

June 7, 2012 8:51 pm

“Why do they have a V-tail if it’s not to avoid radar reflection – it’s not the easiest thing for control!”


Weight reduction;

Volumetric efficiency in stowage (especially in reducing the machine’s height).

June 7, 2012 8:54 pm


I can definitely see your point regarding not needing trained pilots to “fly” UAS. I’m pretty sure the US has an intake at the moment that has completely sidestepped manned aircraft but it’s early days to see how it turns out. Feedback from the UK guys at Creech are that having experienced pilots does make quite a difference. Personally I think this is probably just due to the experience issue – do you want Flt Lts/Sqn Ldrs with multiple tour experience providing your support, or some fresh faced chap on his first real operation.


I’m not really sure I see your point. It’s not overly difficult to visual id, and with any sort of radar you’ve got no problems. However, in a low-threat environment you simply fly above manpads and gunfire altitude. In a medium threat environment with medium range rf sams and some fighters (e.g. Libya) then you use other forces (e.g. Tomahawk, Stormshadow) to take out those defences to allow you to operate in a lower threat environment.


The butterfly tail seen on quite a few types saves mass and drag at the expense of control power. Cramming as much fuel on board as possible and reducing drag is very important for endurance, whilst lower control power can be accepted as higher risk of aircraft loss.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 8:59 pm

You require a Commercial Pilots Licence to Instrument level to pilot a UAS in UK civilian airspace, though you don’t have to be rated on a manned aircraft.

See sections 4.7.1 and 4.8:

June 7, 2012 9:00 pm


What scenarios are we going to go up against a peer enemy? The West as a whole has a massive overmatch. It is definitely worth a peer enemy shooting down these assets – but aren’t their fighters/bombers likely to be toting anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles at whereever we’re operating from rather than being concerned with some small reconnaissance assets.

As I’ve said before, first priority should be establishing air superiority through the destruction of the opposing air defences (SAMs+fighters). This then enables us to blow the crap out of what we want, look at what we want, and most of all it stops James’ mates complaining when they get bombed by the opposition.

UAS like Watchkeeper or Reaper are definitely not the gold plated solution but are much cheaper for common lower-tier wars.

June 7, 2012 9:04 pm

@ James/mark

I would think that it more related to the level of training and the definition of ‘trained’ rather than trained or untrained.

@ James

What level of training are the operators given?

@ Hannay

‘I’m pretty sure the US has an intake at the moment that has completely sidestepped manned aircraft but it’s early days to see how it turns out.’

I understand it’s more than one intake. The USAF have now a branch of UAV operaters up and running that aren’t from a manned aircraft background. Mainly due to manning shortages, they just couldn’t get enough ex fj pilots and cost as well. There was also a similar trial within the RAF.

The Other Chris
June 7, 2012 9:07 pm

The UAS also needs to be able to rebroadcast voice communications with the ground station to and from air traffic controllers and other aircraft in the vicinity.

It also needs the usual navigation lights and transponder, together with the ability to detect and avoid potential collisions to a degree.

June 7, 2012 9:08 pm

@ Hannay

Well you don’t do recce for the fun of it. It is done so you can find out where the enemy are so you can drop ordnance on to them.

If it flies above MANPADS or AAA you need another system to shoot it down so why not another drone?

As for no peer enemy I keep forgetting all this defence equipment is purchased only so middle aged men can discuss it on the internet, that all future events are predictable, and that we live in an interdependent age where worth isn’t a worthwhile venture. It slips my mind all the time……. :)

June 7, 2012 9:19 pm


I read that link as though “there’s going to be some future regulations” i.e. start reading from the top of that Section, called “Policy”. So I’m going to take that as “No Manned Aircraft Pilot Required”.

No doubt there will be some qualification issued by the Army to Watchkeeper operators, having done an acceptable course. But they won’t be pilots, nor will it be anything like a pilot’s course. I’m also uncertain as to whether military airspace gets a let out clause as well.

The old Phoenix operator course was 14 weeks IIRC. WATCHKEEPER is meant to be much simpler to control, but maybe they’ll load in other requirements.

June 7, 2012 10:02 pm


I have seen some anti-drone drone concepts. Really it’s a very cheap surface to air missile or a drone armed with manpads. Apparently the Serbs had quite some success at shooting down drones with the door gunners on helicopters as well…

My point about about peer enemies is rather to say that this issue isn’t likely to be the highest priority with everything else that would be happening in such a campaign.

June 7, 2012 10:09 pm

@ Hannay

I know where you are coming from with your very reasonable questions. I would say that with long range PGM munitions and UAVs proliferating I think counter-UAV is a bit of priority. Have you seen the number of countries that operate these things?

June 7, 2012 11:45 pm

I think the counter-UAV problem is real, and difficult. As UAV technology moves onwards, it is not going to get any easier. Stealth UAVs with slopey surfaces, composite materials, increasingly low-signature engines. There’s also the multiplication factor – any modern battlefield is going to have dozens of the things, of all shapes and sizes. The enemy may develop some TLAM-like capability. Eventually, there are also going to be loitering munitions cruising about waiting for a bruising.

The problem we face is that a £20,000 model aircraft with a Go-Pro camera and a memory card is sufficient to royally screw us if it gets a look at the right thing. Iran successfully flew a UAV around a US carrier filming it, so second and third tier nations are fully capable of fielding UAVs. Of course, the USN would have blown the thing away in an instant if the ROE had allowed, but still indicative.

I think the solution will keep evolving – a bit like the armour / anti-armour cycle – but if we were to go to war against a UAV capable enemy next year, what would be the best solution in 2013? Repeatedly firing £150,000 missiles at £20,000 UAVs is getting expensive. Putting lots of UAV hunting radars all across our frontage does their work for them – we tell them where we are. It also consumes troops.

My view is that in 2013, we are going to have air superiority at the very least, so let’s capitalise on that. We’ve got AWACs in the sky, with a hugely capable radar. Let’s use that. That’s the STA and detection elements sorted, what about the kill aspect?

A Cessna, or similar, with a cannon. Buy a Squadron of 12 and put one up in the air 24/7, turning lazy circles. Hotline to the AWACS, and a lowish cost radar onboard itself for the last 10 miles. A Cessna will cover a Divisional front and depth in about 10 minutes maximum. A Cessna is faster than most UAVs, but has the low speed to hang behind one while it lines up the shot. Mount a mini gun in the side door, with a Loadie to operate it.

That covers all of the cheaper UAVs, flying up to about 15,000 feet. Anything bigger and higher is going to be out of reach, so that’s what the AWACS assigns to a FJ with a Sidewinder or cannon.

It may seem odd to send a plane after a UAV, but I think it’s a simple idea, we can do it in UOR timeframes and a bit of airspace coord thinking by the Kevins. £4M buys you 12 Cessnas (if we can’t repurpose some of the Grob trainers), but after that your kill costs are some bullets (I’m going to rule out crew and support costs as they’d also exist for batteries of missiles and land-based radars, plus too complex at this time of night).

June 7, 2012 11:51 pm


SOP for us is the light/medium stabilised turret for anti-UAV work, 7.62, 0.5cal or 35mm would work. One IFV would always be designated as AA, job is to watch for UAVs or careless helicopters. And the Air Force would do their part too of course.

As for the UAV itself, as someone who often end up as the test target for those flying lawn mowers, I can say that they are fairly stealthy. You won’t know they are there unless you specifically look for them visually or they turn the engine on. They would climb high, cut the engine, then glide past the target area soundlessly before turning the engine on and climbing again. As for radar, well, that thing is small, and ground based sensors have to contend with terrain and ground clutter, so you can use something similar to FJ/AH doctrine regarding penetration of enemy perimeter defences. Keep slightly above the biggest hill with vegetation and try to keep something between you and the nearest SAM site. The UAVs that kept playing tag with me were the Searchers though, not Watchkeeper or Reaper.

June 7, 2012 11:55 pm

….could even be a composite / war only / RAFVR Squadron. Activate it when needed, aircrew from advanced training, or pilots doing a ground tour who have volunteered. 2 day refresher on the Cessna, two days firing the mini gun at some cheap aerial targets at Parc Aberporth, one day of refresher radio and AWACS procedures, deploy to theatre. Have a CLS contract for the Cessnas so no military maintainers needed.

Result: good enough capability, total cost going to be less than £10M for the first deployment and 6 months, £5M or less for each 6 month block. Given how much damage a UAV could do to us, I think it’s a bargain.

June 7, 2012 11:57 pm

Or use Apache chin guns for a fly by shooting? Missed? Hover and try again?

June 8, 2012 12:12 am

…if we’re feeling really flush, a Squadron of Super Tucanos. Already come equipped with 2 M3 MGs, plus various AAM options. Will do 300+ knots, right down to 80 knots. Stays airborne for 6 hours easy, will go up to 30,000 feet. Can also do CAS easily enough with Maverick or bombs.

Call it an “Army Cooperation Squadron”. Going to cost a lot more than a Squadron of Cessnas, but can do a lot more.

June 8, 2012 6:37 am

Or use what you already have and Apache/Merlin door gunner/Puma door gunner them down. No extra cost.

The Other Chris
June 8, 2012 8:16 am

Plus Starstreak, LMM on the way.

June 8, 2012 8:59 am


Not specifically about Watchkeeper but generally I’m not sure I understand why all assets do not go back to the manufacturer for deep maintenance. That would leave the RAF (for example) to do field maintenance on Typhoon with essentially the “sustainment” fleet residing with BAe. Same with Astute, same with Merlin, etc.

In other words, if it’s broken, hand it back to the manufacturer for extended warrantee replacement/repair. That leaves the forces to concentrate of preventative/routine maintenance and operation.

Is this mad?

June 8, 2012 9:08 am

A bit of correction/amplification on the history.

The term Falconer etc was never used, in RA service it was always SD-1 (abbreviation of USD-1). The first unit formed in UK, for trials in 1959. This seems to have grown into the eventual capability. SD-1 took photos by day and night (it had a flare pack). It was controlled from the ground station with a tracking radar and really advanced technology, a real-time moving light dot over a paper map between two perspex(?) sheets, this enabled the operator to fly it where wanted and take pics when required (for the so inclined this ensemble was Rdr,FA,No 13). Obviously it was all wet film stuff with forward processing.

However, the background goes back to WW1 and the vital role of air recce in the CB batle, on thewhole the RFC did a good job, particulary photo wise with airfields within a reasonable trot of corps heavy arty HQ. Air observation of fire was less successfull, a few RFC/RAF pilots were very good but most wer at best ‘ordinary’. In fairness conditions were dificult and good observation is not as easy as it is sometimes assumed. WW2 was a new problem but the airfields were within a shortish jeep ride of their Corps HQRA. However, the arty/R procedure proved less that great although the SAAF sqn in Italy did a pretty good job and eventually an RAF sqn got up to speed, but in NWE, forget it. The problem was stooging around over the German gun areas was not real healthy and needed capable resources if the Luftwaffe had got out of bed that day. Come the Cold War airfields were ever further back, the tachnology of transmitting high qulaity photos was in its infancy and the propesct of fast jets stooging around the Sov gun areas was really a prospect. Given that the Sov artillery arm was a far more potent force than WW2 Germany, then there was a seriousw problem that most of the army and RAF was more than happy to ignore. However, the Gunner folkmemory was long and unmanned aircraft owned and operated by the army were the obvious solution.

Midge was a general capability but probably more used on CPX by arty int staff than G Int. However, Midge had an analoge flight control computer and it could only be programed for a very small number of turns, height changes and image exposures. Actual imagery was not normally provided, the requestor asked questions and the Int Corps image analysts in the battery reported the answers. Midge had a problematic development and probably wouldn’t have entered services if it hadn’t been for the persistance of the TIG assigned to project.

MRUASTAS was chopped by the MGO when the CEO of Westlands was explaining the problems they were encountering and said that they were running it as a ‘hobby shop project’, 4* sense of humour failure ensued. However, on a lighter note there was also the WRAC driver who fronted up to the offrs mess at Larkhill and said she’d come to collect Mr Rastus.

Having staffed CASTOR and UAV requirements, I’d comment that we recognised that the problem with the latter would be that realtime imagery would take on a life of its own, everyone would want it, and could be to the detriment of the CB task, but it was mission critical for MLRS and having any chance of winning the CB battle (the intention was to run Phoenix out of the Depth Fire Direction Centre assigned to each division). Of course the issue with Phoenix was the requirement for zero length launch/zero length recovery for use in a divisional area and the close coupled issue of flight time. IIRC Phoenix was ‘piloted’ by the operator flying the ground spot, the aircraft piloted itself from these insrtuctions, there was a huge terrain facsimile of the are south of Hanover built in Filton or somewhere with moving gantries to develop, test and evaluate the human factors issues for this ‘non-piloting’ operator ‘flying’. BATES was not the driving issue, although the PM did try to use BATES as an excuse for Phoenix delays (I seem to remember him being rather obnoxious one day), actually all BATES did for Phoenix was pass formatted messages, ie Calls for Fire (FM.CFF) and its relatives (FM.MTO, etc). BATES was not designed to pass imagery (the bandwidth was nowhere near enough) and the comms protocols hadn’t been invented.

I’m happy to be corrected by James, but I understand that Watchkeeper also includes a fair number of Tac Parties equipped to receive Watchkeeper imagery and provide advice and liaison to bde and BG HQs, etc. This capability is critical for integrating into the land battle. Obviously like the AD tac parties, and other arty elements, they are under control of the arty commander at each HQ. Much of the infrastructure being built is a Boscombe Down which is the actual operating base and a short flight from Salisbury Plain.

June 8, 2012 9:27 am


my thoughts on your questions, for what they are worth.

(Following on from observations of RA / Int Corps working on the system) However, in a reducing armed forces and given the likelihood that Watchkeeper will be operating from exactly the same deployed infrastructure and airbases as other fixed and rotary wing assets does it make sense to retain this legacy. They are no longer used for simple fire adjustment and the system will be closely integrated with other services.

The nub of this question to me is timeliness – as in time to results delivered, which is a long chain of tasking, planning, coordination, the mission itself, and the often parallel interpretation work and communication of the results to the tasking commander. What works best? To my mind, the supported commander should have OPCOM of the WATCHKEEPER system, and in most cases it will be the Land commander, so the WATCHKEEPER system should be manned “mostly” by people familiar with the land environment. Going into one level of detail deeper, to my mind that places 4 organisations to the forefront as candidates to be the lead for the WATCHKEEPER unit: RA, Int Corps, AAC, and RAC.
RA: Ideally placed to operate the system in the STA and Fix missions.
Int Corps: Higher end ISR:
AAC: For integrating with Land Deep Fires
RAC: For integrating with the higher end Find mission.
(Of course, there’s a need for skilled REME support, akin to an aviation Regiment’s LAD – pretty similar skillsets)

The Army has always mixed capbadges in units, but I see this needing to be deeper for WATCHKEEPER. So what I would propose (and in fact did, back in 2002, and was mostly listened to) would be a unit based on 32 Regt RA (I think 47 also now have this role), with an Intelliegence Company manned by the Int Corps, and permanently attached Liaison Teams from an AH Regiment and a FR Regiment (with the kit and comms they need). In addition, reprise the role of the Brigade and Divisional Air Liaison Officers and post an RAF fast jet pilot or navigator with CAOC experience to the unit. He/she and small support team would be fundamental to mission planning and in-mission coordination, probably with comms direct to Air Component HQ if not directly to the CAOC.

The “attached” personnel from RAC, AAC and RAF should ideally be full time attached, not just drafted in for exercises. There’s no substitute for living and working with people full time to really get to understand how to work effectively together.

Where do the Formation Recce units come into the Watchkeeper family, would they be best placed to operate them.

See above. To be honest, the operational Find mission is not full time. It would be wasteful as a full time role.

Is there merit in either AAC or RAF operating Watchkeeper and can we leverage the ASTOR/Sentinel working arrangements or should we just let the RA get on with their excellent work?

Also see above. The ASTOR Squadron is a pretty good model.

The Project Lydian Hermes 450′s have been operating well in Afghanistan and before that Iraq but with Watchkeeper, the Army will be reverted to a more traditional wholly owned and operated model. Could that be replicated where on enduring operations, elements of operation and maintenance are carried out by contractors under an availability type arrangement.

A whole separate cost / benefit analysis – I am too far removed from the figures to know. But servicing and availability contracts should not impinge on the ability to get airframes up in the air 24/7 when deployed.

I’ve also got this crazy idea for a Joint UAV Brigade, perhaps under peacetime command of the JHC. 2 Regiments of “Tactical WATCHKEEPER”, based on 32 and 47 Regts RA, with the attached personnel I outline above. A third “Operational / Strategic SCAVENGER” Regiment, probably based on an RAF Squadron, and operating Hermes 900 in the MALE / Armed Attack role. That would probably always be under OPCON of the Air Component Commander, and used for Deep Strike / Strategic ISR, or simply for sniping terrorist commanders with TOW or whatever.

Why group them with WATCHKEEPER? If we buy Hermes 900 for that role, then we have total commonality of supply, logistics, and 90% of the equipment training aspects. We can then develop a Joint UAV training centre to deliver courses for personnel posted to any of the 3 units. We begin to get a 3-phase readiness cycle going. And when occasionally the tactical and operational cycles coincide, handoff / handover of air vehicles and missions is much more seamless.

Grouping them under the JHC makes sense, as UAVs are more akin to helicopters in operation than fast jets, and in brings them into an environment in which air safety and management is more ingrained than anything the RA can deliver. It also means that they can work closely aligned with the Attack Aviation Regiments of the AAC and have coordinated training and exercises.

June 8, 2012 9:50 am

Obsvr, re Tac Parties,

yes, I believe you are correct – it was certainly an active topic of discussion when I left LAND in late 2003, with most seeming to like the concept.

Life moved on and 4 years later I was earning my dollars from Raytheon for Business Development, who had developed a first class tactical (handheld) data radio which was capable then of near-FMV. I think it now does twice the speed. I proposed to DRA and to LAND that several hundred of these be procured and used as “dumb” terminals for disseminating both chipped imagery from WATCHKEEPER (i.e. 30 second clips, annotated if necessary) to HQs and forward units without their own immediate access to WATCHKEEPER. The radios could also act as a bent pipe rebro in the sky to disseminate other data as well – this was in the days before CORMORANT and FALCON were fully in service, and even then the bandwidth at tactical levels was looking insufficient. I got quite a lot of traction for the idea, but ran into opposition in the then DEC CCII who observed the idea would run across other programmes and he had no funding. I left the concept, Powerpoints, White Papers and contacts I had with my successor in Raytheon when I moved on, but I am not aware the idea ever got any further.

June 8, 2012 3:03 pm

James, would you want to have one or more FSTs in that organisation?

Is there a case for more seats in the ground station? A lot of things made sense when I learned that there was a crew of five “in” a US Reaper.

June 8, 2012 3:49 pm


Rebro would work. Provided the unit wants to take a look at that specific objective and not the one next door. Then it gets frustrating as hell when the person doing the driving misses out on all the spots you want a look at.

“Turn LEFT, LEFT!! I want a closer look at his trenches! NOO!! Why are you looking at his artillery??!! GO BACK! BACK!!” :P

I would try to split the capability between units. HQ needs their strategic view (MALE units), artillery needs their spotting (medium UAVs) and RECON units need their small micro-UAVs for standoff recce. All different needs.

And like kids, all expensive…

June 8, 2012 6:14 pm


yes, you are correct to a certain extent, but there are procedures that dilute your worries.

Mission planning, particularly for the longer duration missions, routinely time-slice camera time, and commanders can ask for certain amounts of UAV support. It may be that one wants a look every 15 minutes at a certain cross-roads, another an alert if radar picks up massed vehicle movement in a village, etc etc etc. The mission planning crew filter all of these requests and allocate time slices as appropriate. Software is good enough to auto-chip imagery into small segments and email it to the necessary recipient, analysts can look at a particular segment and send a short text email, etc. Nothing on life is perfect, but with an expensive resource like WATCHKEEPER, time-slicing availability is the quickest way to satisfying the most demands.

(BTW, that’s exactly how ASTOR works. I should know – I wrote the SOPs for ASTOR. The Kevins hadn’t really got a clue as to how to go about it, so asked me to do it. There’s exactly X time slices in the ASTOR Mission Planning System available for pre-allocation, because that’s what I told Raytheon was necessary when they wrote the software. Most are pre-filled, some available “on call” to the main effort, some dynamically allocated by the Air Mission Commander.) I’m not writing out what X is for opsec.

June 9, 2012 12:10 am


Got it, thanks.

June 9, 2012 1:38 am

James: Super Tucano UAV hunters… now you’re talkin’! :D

I have no idea how these things work operationally, other than, “Oo no… it’s a bit more complicated than that…” but how does this sound?

UK’s looking at maybe buying some of those deadly-looking Super Tucanos (STs from now) as basic trainers. US is looking at buying some for cheap COIN.

Any way we could save a few bob by integrating those two procurements? Or how about we buy some STs for training, leave the MGs in the wings of some of them, and have maybe a flight’s worth fitted and certified with whatever defensive aids the US might be fitting to theirs, totally off the shelf with no pi$$ing about.

In a pretty permissive aerial environment where the enemy’s using UAVs, you can ship the more advanced students and some of the instructors over with the combat STs and get some entry-level combat training, particularly useful against some of the higher altitude UAVs that helo guns couldn’t reach.

And can we paint shark teeth and eyes on the Tucanos, like them stylish Latinos do, can we, can we?! :P

June 9, 2012 4:44 am

Re FR and AAC.

In intelligence terms Watchkeeper is an agency that can be tasked and report results. If necessary it can also act, eg by directing artillery fire, hopefully its target fixing capabilities are good enough for precision targeting for GMLRS.

I’d suggest FR are primarily Watchkeeper customers receiving actionable information and if necessary requesting particular coverage/posing particular questions. I don’t think think they need a presence in a UAS regiment for this, as is well established RA practice they get a specialist RA element (to join the existing ones). AAC are a bit more complicated, if AAC have a permanent presence in bde HQ, where I assume the UAS bty and CS regt commanders are, then this may be the best contact point.

Incidentally, another cost being borne by the Watchkeeper program is purchasing additional Vikings to equip the Tactical Parties (ie those elements deploying with supported unit and formation HQs).

Of course combining WK and Desert Hawk detachments into composite UAS batteries should minimise the proliferation of RA elements in BG and bde HQs! Its also useful to remember that the Land Environment Air Picture is being provided to bde HQs by yet another RA element, albeit with RAF membership (RAF should only be allowed in army HQs with effective adult supervision :-) )

June 9, 2012 6:41 am

Obsvr, Forward Recon doesn’t need a Watchkeeper system, too large and overpowered for front line usage, they need team deployable micro-uavs with laptop sized control stations which they can pack along, not a truck sized control station complete with RAF pilot.

June 10, 2012 8:29 am

Not really correct, what they require is timely information, including the ability to get what they want as quickly as possible. This can be provided by a UAS Tac party at the FR unit HQ, which I assume will the capability to receive and display Watchkeeper imagery. Of course they could also have one or more MUAS detachments from the same UAS battery. The problem with these is that MUAS have limited range and endurance, it’s a characteristic of the type and unlikely to change much when Desert Hawk is eventually replaced (and assuming Desert Hawk goes into core). Current detachments are 4 or 5 strong and I suggest there is no prospect of a det joining every FR troop, although per sqn could be a runner.

DIY UAS will doubtless appear, but its useful to note that the rotary wing MUAS used by the CIED force has been transferred from RE to RA. The implication would seem to be that they are not yet quite as simple as ‘plug and play’ and still need specialist skills.

This of course leads to THE fundamental military organisational issue – should specialist elements be centralised or decentralised. Decentralistion has been well tried because ‘it makes tactical sense’ (the ‘knowing who you work with thing’ that gets trotted out with regular monotony). However, drinking together is not a substitute for effective training and British Army history shows that training standards are generally higher when specialist elements are centralised. The best case study is probably the 1970s/80s centralisation of Swingfire troops from RAC and inf into RHA batteries.

Current WK GCS seems to be UAV comd (JNCO), Pilot/Payload Opr (JNCO), Mission Comd (SNCO), I can’t quite work out where RAF pilots fit in, although the notion of a Sqn Ldr under supervision of an RA sgt has a certain appeal. Tac parties (which are not GCS) will have Vikings, which while bigger than CVRs are not exactly trucks and are armoured.

June 10, 2012 2:27 pm

Considering that future use of the forces seems to be based around strategic raiding from the sea don’t we absolutely definitely need to find a way to fly at least Watchkeeper off the carriers? Something needs to be watching over those amphibious landings surely? They would also be low profile for pre-intervention work in Africa, when you dont want to be flying F35s over sovereign territory but do want to be sat off shore with a good idea what is going on where you might have to go.

As to having too many of them – surely this is where we provide non-kinetic, non-bodybag support to peacekeeping? eg support AMISOM in Somalia, based from the security of Mog airport? Giving that kind of capability to AMISOM would surely make a huge difference? Or helping out the Kenyans (under cover of supporting our training there if necessary). Or in DR Congo to help the UN see and prove who is being naughty.

June 10, 2012 2:50 pm

I may be using the wrong words…
As we are not doing enduring operations, and will probably have a permanent carrier availability, wont most operations come from the sea? At least at the entry stage, otherwise what are we using the carriers for?

June 10, 2012 2:56 pm

Obsvr, very bloody correct. FR doesn’t need timely information, they PROVIDE timely information. They are not supposed to call for another unit to do the job THEY are supposed to do themselves.

You see FR as one “unit” where giving maybe 1 hour of air time is enough. FR isn’t really “one unit”, they are about 30 tac teams doing RSTA, half of which probably need to do an objective recce and need UAV support. That is way too much for a single UAV or 2 to support, not to mention RSTA teams are meant to free up Brigade assets to be used elsewhere, not jam them up into a single job and clogging already busy runways.

There is no way I’m going to be able to use a UAV system that needs a full fledged runway when I’m doing an infiltration. Nothing more noticable than hogging up a road to launch something the size of a truck, the ability of sneaking it into hostile territory notwithstanding.

FR, mini-UAVs or micor-UAVs. Watchkeeper is totally the wrong system for RSTA teams.


“When did this happen”

About 30 min ago. :P


As I mentioned earlier, Watchkeeper needs a full runway, instead of reinventing the wheel, OTS might be a better solution. Boeing’s Scaneagle is still a pretty definitive example of a seaborne capable mini-UAV, and seems to fit the bill.

June 11, 2012 3:27 am

@ Observer

Not true, FR can swan around and may or may not find something of interest. However, as anybody who has ever been anywhere near the Intelligence Centre will tell you, intelligence is all about ‘systematic exploitation of all sources of information’. FR is just a particular agency in intelligence terms, as are UAS units.

Effective recce, not the swanning around cavalry private war type, is intelligence driven to achieve the commander’s EEIs assigned to them. UAS provide some EEIs and can provide information to inform the recce plan and keep recce units up to date on what they might expect. Watchkeeper range and persistance will produce information to help guide the FR. Of course the birds can’t be everywhere and the optical sensors are relatively short range and best suited to target acquisition (with the LRF) and recognition. However, the radar sensors are relatively longrange, and this is where the sensor time slicing concept comes into play. How many slices and when is the commanders decision, sometimes most of them could be for FR, at others few or none because there are more important tasks (eg winning the CB battle :-) .

Once information reaches the FR HQ then its their problem to push it forwards, unless Tac Parties are provided to sqns, which seems unlikely given their limited number.

June 11, 2012 3:38 am

@ TD

another factoid, I understood at the time that the Phoenix launcher pallet (ie the launch rail, etc), was taken from the US Army’s Aquila program, a UAV that was cancelled. I haven’t sought out pics to compare as a check.

I’ve also a vague memory that in the 1970s there was a UAV called Raven that had some limited use as well as trials.

June 11, 2012 7:17 am

@ TD, re does Hermes 900 carry enough payload?

Possibly, possibly not. I think someone closer to current events than me would need to do a survey of how we use Reaper, and others their equivalents. My instinct is that big UAVs with missiles do not often go off on balls out bombing missions, and come back empty. Even if the survey showed Hermes 900 is too wimpy, it is probably easier to get Elbit to make Hermes 1800 with double the payload but the same avionics, software and support systems, than to try to integrate Predator or similar into WATCHKEEPER.


You are right in that FR is one component of intelligence, but it’s not all FR does. FR is the Commander’s tripwire, his route provers, his emergency flank guard, and his temperature tester. Show me a UAV that can talk to a local in a market square, quell a potential riot with a local show of force, identify whether the minefield is real or a ruse, respond with automatic cannon to a helo-landing at no notice, exploit a momentary gap the enemy left, temporarily guard PWs, rush a bridge, etc etc etc. As your near namesake Observer said, FR provides info, but as I say, it is the Commander’s single most flexible and agile force at his disposal. That’s what the private war swanning about is about, and why it tends to attract a sort of buccaneering spirit (and also scruffy boots, terrible drill, etc No one in a FR Regiment gives a toss about those sorts of things).

Small little joke: Princess Elizabeth was appointed the Royal Colonel of my old Regiment the 16th/5th The Queen’s Royal Lancers a long time before she became Queen (fact), nor indeed ever expected to become Queen. She was so young that when her grandfather the King asked what she wanted for her birthday, she replied “a Cowboy outfit”.

June 11, 2012 8:18 am


The FR you’re describing sounds more like unit scouts than RSTA, though I do admit to being tripwire, route prover and temperature tester. As a joke, our team size being so small and all, we commonly say the Brigade commander detects the enemy by seeing where our teams don’t report back. An element of truth in something so nasty sounding though, made worse by modern Thermal Imaging.

Working the ground is fairly rare though, in hostile areas, you have to assume everyone’s out to get you, but I do remember an exercise in Thailand where a TC (Team Commander) and his buddy went into a village to ask if they saw anyone else in green when the Opfor brigade commander and his HQ pulled in. Really exciting time for the 2 of them, hiding in the back of a store while the enemy was swarming around in the front.


“sometimes most of them could be for FR, at others few or none because there are more important tasks (eg winning the CB battle)”

Exactly why WE cannot depend on other units to do our job for us. A pre-mission strategic look at the area would be nice to have, but that is for “Intelligence Center”, not for the boots on the ground. At ground level, it’s more about tactical infomation which is LATER built up to a strategic picture.

You sound like you’re quoting from a class, nothing wrong with that, in fact, everything you say actually sounds familiar enough that I can say I probably took a class like it, but “How do I put that into parctice?” has always been the Million Dollar Question. And other than pre-mission planning, I can’t see how assigning a MALE to recon teams can possibly be of anything other than limited utility. Micro- or Mini- UAVs, 1 per team is going to be a lot more practical, 30 close recce instead of one broad picture of only a single objective.

And yes, I am FR. Or at least I was, as of last year. Damn re-org bunged me to God knows where.

June 11, 2012 8:37 am


despite you and I having the same trade background, I think we’re at cross-purposes. FR in the British Army is assigned to Divisional level, so the scope of operation is geographically much wider. Units have their own recce troops or platoons, which focus on narrower areas.

This was brought home to me when with others I was running a recce “concentration” for the UKMF in the mid 80s. We had all of the recce platoons gathered together, and were discussing how to best scout the land from the Marlborough Downs to the south coast – about 50 miles of rolling chalk land and villages at typically 2 mile intervals, and a typical Divisional frontage of about 15 miles. I asked the platoons to each give me a plan for how they would do it, and all of the answers were incredibly detailed and about vehicle pairs F&M, the whole process taking about a week. No one said anything about changing into civvies to walk through a village, or identifying the three possible routes for OPFOR movement on a Brigade scale and concentrating on them, or moving at speed in between those routes to observe key junctions. Just a different way of thinking for a 12 hour task.

FR “clears” great chunks of ground on a Divisional basis to give the Commander a feel for risk taking, speed of advance, direction, etc. Unit recce does the detailed work.

June 11, 2012 8:47 am

…it’s why I like Light Strike Vehicle for FR. Small, fast, unobtrusive visually and in noise terms. Jump in and out without encumbrance. 360 degree vision. Need some auto-something weapon for bug out self-defence, nothing more. More important is the best set of binos, a small monocular in your pocket, and the best TI you can buy on a smallish mast.

And no recce soldier worth his salt wouldn’t have a set of civvies to blend in with.

June 11, 2012 1:26 pm


Ah, I see where we differ. For our division level, recce is divided into 3 levels, Unit recce (frontline-FEBA +16km), RSTA (FEBA +16-64km) and LURPS/SOF (64+ km). What you’re talking about is past the 64km boundary, I’m more with RSTA (16-64km).

“And no recce soldier worth his salt wouldn’t have a set of civvies to blend in with.”

Er… there goes the Geneva Convention? Non-uniformed scouts are more commonly called spies. :)

Anyway, back to main topic, if Watchkeeper was assigned to you, how useful would it be on your FR?

Other than pre-mission planning, I really can’t see a lot of advantages in the field. Bringing a ground control station for it into enemy territory is an unacceptable security risk, and having it fly that deep into enemy territory for route recce is chancy. I can see the utility if you sent it on a suicide deep penetration mission to determine a divisional route of advance, but that’s a really expensive way to do it as opposed to 2 men in a shellscrape.

Can you think of a way to use it in infiltration?

June 11, 2012 2:46 pm


using your definitions, UK FR is RSTA, although I believe that we’d have significantly different ideas on distance. For example, my squadron moved about 200 kms in the first 12 hours of GW1, but in a large horseshoe shape through empty desert in order to get around behind the Iraqi reserve Brigade. We ended up (deliberately) only about 30 kms in front of 7 Armd Bde, but with the Iraqi Bde in between us. They then got some serious stonking.

I don’t know the terrain of Singapore, but imagine it to be either urban or jungle, so I am not surprised you have different distance scales. We all adjust to local circumstances. I would however imagine that your SOPs and procedures are entirely recognisable to the UK, as ours would be to you.

In regards to WATCHKEEPER, the most efficient use would be in Fix or Strike missions, not Find (which is more of an Intelligence mission, and therefore probably pre-planned by the Division). FR tend to be used for Fix or Strike missions for “Regimental” level OPFOR (harking back to the old Cold War days), or just keeping tabs on them so that we know what the OPFOR are likely to do with their reserve. Depending on how much WATCHKEEPER assets the CO had available, I’d expect him to use it to control the far flanks or depth. It would also be useful for sending imagery back to a striking Brigade or AH regiment before they start their run in.

June 11, 2012 2:56 pm

…oh, and on the civvies, that was exercise only. There’d always be a non-tactical weekend before STARTEX (Germans banned track movement at the weekends), and that was a brilliant opportunity to go for a bit of a walk to pre-establish where OPFOR were. Certainly aware of the GC (I had to teach it to the JNCO cadre once – can’t think who of us was the more bored, but it was on the syllabus so had to be done).

However, I used to wear a Barbour jacket under my combat jacket. This was in the days before decent issue Goretex waterproofs. If the big bad Cold War had turned hot, I’d have still had it with me, and a pair of green lightweight trousers to change into and ditch the combats. At a pinch, if you are trying to walk back to your own lines if caught out, it would have been useful to blend in a little more with civpop while still “technically” in uniform. All Cavalry officers wear Barbours, so it must be part of the uniform…..

June 11, 2012 4:30 pm

Actually, the ranges were fixed by the limit of our old equipment, the longest range in the old days for a radio with add-on antenna was 64km, so that was the maximum range RSTA could roam (Called BRC then). Past that, you needed relay stations and were really out of contact often with HQ, hence the LURPs designation (long range UNASSISTED recon).

I’d say your FIND is analogous to our Reconissance, the others not so sure. We have more in common with the US system than with the UK one after 1971, the US being predicted as the party we would be most likely to do joint ops with.

How different is your FIND missions from your FIX missions? Degree of specific targetting?
STRIKE I would take it as either you raiding the target if lightly defenced or marking it for the attentions of artillery and/or follow up squishing by 60 ton rolling boxes?

June 12, 2012 10:25 am

@ James

actually during the latter part of Cold War the ‘FR’ regts were grouped under Comd RAC as a covering force conducting delaying withdrawal, I always remember the Corps Comd once saying to us that in WW3 he had something like 5 decisions to make, one of the first was when to order Comd RAC to break contact and withdraw rapidly. Presumably any survivors would be available to recce ahead of a counter-stroke.

My understanding of modern doctrine is that recce find the exploitable vulnerabilities. Obviously they can be helped with where to look with some big picture imagery from UAS and perhaps get early warning if they are heading into trouble. Micro recce by UAVs looking over the next hill is a different matter altogether.

June 15, 2012 8:00 pm

Hi Desk Jockey, trying to catch up on this thread:

“the Americans are incredibly sensitive about Reaper and the MOD always struggled to be able to do anything more with it outside of use in Afghanistan and Nevada. In short, it is a platform the UK cannot use or support outside of Afghanistan due to ITAR, airworthiness and lack of technical understanding.”
– the Italians are getting some of those, too, “” having used the Predators for yonks

June 15, 2012 9:06 pm

Hi James,

In the US (airspace, incl. the 12 miles off the coast line) there has to be a pilot – in a chase plane – flying along, to make sure collision avoidance is operating “fully”.

RE ” We operated JUEP (a Hermes 450) in highly congested airspace alongside the US Navy, and once some deconfliction routines had been established, not a problem at all. To me, the Kevins are on a job-saving push. There actually is an argument for a pilot to be involved in the mission planning, but actually flying the thing, not really.”

– none such once they are “off” to the global commons and everybody else’s airspace
– the application for the newer anti-collision kit to be certificated is running (potentially) to 2015, could be decided earlier

Gareth Jones
June 15, 2012 9:22 pm

Nice find TD.

June 16, 2012 7:22 am

Still in a catch-up mode, so apologies for this going back to the top of comments page.

Surely too common-sense to happen (quoting James):
“the forefront as candidates to be the lead for the WATCHKEEPER unit: RA, Int Corps, AAC, and RAC.
RA: Ideally placed to operate the system in the STA and Fix missions.
Int Corps: Higher end ISR:
AAC: For integrating with Land Deep Fires
RAC: For integrating with the higher end Find mission.
(Of course, there’s a need for skilled REME support, akin to an aviation Regiment’s LAD – pretty similar skillsets)

The Army has always mixed capbadges in units, but I see this needing to be deeper for WATCHKEEPER. So what I would propose (and in fact did, back in 2002, and was mostly listened to) would be a unit based on 32 Regt RA (I think 47 also now have this role), with an Intelliegence Company manned by the Int Corps, and permanently attached Liaison Teams from an AH Regiment and a FR Regiment (with the kit and comms they need).”

James, before the above quote you emphasised the importance of timeliness. I have always been amazed that the catapult option has not been taken up (it was tested on the ranges in Scotland).

After the quoted part you mention Astor sqdrn as a good model? I am at a loss with the details for that; which aspect should be copied? (Not doubting that it is a good idea, just patchy knowledge)

June 16, 2012 7:30 am

Hi Observer, RE you recommendation, Israel has actually implemented it (they know something about the use of UAVs?).

“I would try to split the capability between units. HQ needs their strategic view (MALE units), artillery needs their spotting (medium UAVs) and RECON units need their small micro-UAVs for standoff recce. All different needs.”
– it came to 5 levels of operational command, so 4 below the overall HQ
– can’t remember if the air-defences suppression (an armed mission) was one of the 5, but that would still leave one more than your 3

June 16, 2012 7:40 am

Hi Obsvr, your point takes us to the white ‘fridge’ in the back of the SV Scouts (FR being their owner), and what will it do (i.e. the guy in the seat facing it – is he the on the ground & on the spot analyst for fusing either the feeds or rebro clips from airborne sources into what the FR unit on the ground can see and can investigate?)

RE “I’d suggest FR are primarily Watchkeeper customers receiving actionable information and if necessary requesting particular coverage/posing particular questions. I don’t think think they need a presence in a UAS regiment for this”

June 16, 2012 7:53 am

Hi Observer, did you notice the 7th photo under this one

RE “deployable micro-uavs with laptop sized control stations” and the valid comments about limited range and endurance of MUAS’s by your (almost) namesake; how many can you lug around in a backbag?
– so make it multiple tubes, and carry a spare load-up in the back of the vehicle (does not need to be as hefty as the one in the photo)

June 16, 2012 8:04 am

RE “Watchkeeper needs a full runway”
-recovering a WK needs a full runway (a grass strip will do)

Definitely agreed about “instead of reinventing the wheel” when it comes to “Boeing’s Scaneagle is still a pretty definitive example of a seaborne capable mini-UAV, and seems to fit the bill”
-from a carrier to frigate to a stealthy infiltration boat as for launch(again, recovery is the one with more exacting needs)

June 16, 2012 8:11 am

Hi TD, I think you answered your own question, in the same sentence
“have become over reliant on UAV imagery, still completely baffled why FRES Scout does not have an elevating mast mounted sensor, TRACER had one.”
– I do agree with the over-reliance point, but if the SV Scouts are one sqdrn in every three, why not do the German/ Dutch Fennek or Italian Lince trick and put that gear on the lighter/ sneakier kit ( along time ago there was a photo posted on TD of a prototype)