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.
The cameras from the Midges were also mounted on Army Air Corps De Havilland Beavers, still flown in the AAC Historic Flight.
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.
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
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.
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
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;
Thales-UK; with Aerosystems International, Elbit, and QinetiQ offering the Hermes 180 and Hermes 450 air vehicles
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.
The Watchkeeper air vehicle first flew on April 16th 2008 from Megido airfield in Israel
And from Parc Aberporth in 2010
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;
- Major sub-assemblies and components; Boeing, Cobham and Wimborne
- Data links; Cubic Corporation, Ultra Electronics and Greenford
- Air vehicles; Elbit and Lola
- Digital battlespace integration; LogicaCMG and Leatherhead
- Ground station shelters and vehicles; Marshall SV, Cambridge
- Programme safety; Altran Praxis
- Inertial Navigation System; Athena Technologies
- Ruggedised hardware; Secure Systems and Technologies
- Airworthiness consultancy and image data management; QinetiQ
- UAV engine; UAV Engines Ltd
- Training; Vega and SELEX
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Additional payloads may be developed in the future to include SIGINT and radio rebroadcast although these would need to be low in weight.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?