That Watchkeeper is seriously late and over budget is not in question, this has resulted in capability gaps and the need for temporary solutions.
But the question remains, will the long and difficult journey be worth it in the end?
It is easy to find opinions for yes, and no.
Watchkeeper has evolved from Midge and Phoenix, instead of an artillery spotting system and a basic ISTAR system, Watchkeeper is a formation level multi-purpose ISTAR system that is light years ahead.
Because it is light years ahead it is clear that the Royal Artillery has had problems retaining corporate knowledge and training currency, the move to Joint Helicopter Command would seem to confirm this.
Which means that going forward, we should ask serious questions whether the Royal Artillery is the best custodian of the Watchkeeper capability. Yes, there is a good case because of history, the huge well of operational experience with similar systems and the intimate relationship between it and brigade and divisional artillery coordination, but, is such a complex multi-purpose system best placed with the Army Air Corps?
One thing does look certain, the Royal Artillery has been unable to invest in a great deal whilst Watchkeeper has been running. Some of its core equipment is starting to look a little long in the tooth and other projects, deferred or cancelled. Although ISTAR is crucially important, there is a danger that the Royal Artillery, in carving out a post-Afghanistan ISTAR niche, is neglecting core capabilities.
The need for a runway (however rough) does limit deployment options and at a 150km maximum range, the launch and recovery locations would be well within the reach of Iskander missile and even, Scud. A zero length launch system such as a Robonic launcher may be possible but recovery would still need a suitable runway.
The next system down is the 15km range, Desert Hawk.
Watchkeeper is the only unmanned vehicle to have NATO STANAG 4671 and European Aviation Safety Agency CS-23 air worthiness certification and has demonstrated a flight, after much preparation and temporary danger zones, a single flight in controlled airspace. This is an important step but only one step, much more work, expensive work, will be needed to make this routine. Collision avoidance and separation provision may underpin further work in this area but we must question the operational benefit.
One of the main reasons given has been for realistic training for both ground forces and the Watchkeeper force, but, could simply accepting that it could not be used in non-segregated airspace and accepting a compromise of a manned surrogate (like we already do with DA42’s) have enabled the system to be delivered quicker and at a much lower cost?
For the British Army in Kenya, 3DSL have provided Diamond DA42’s in the role of surrogate unmanned air vehicles, this could be continued in the UK or simply bring a small number of DA42’s into service with the Army Air Corps in the role.
For Watchkeeper personnel training, this could be conducted in Wales and Ascension.
Neither of these are ideal solutions but with finite budgets, is pursuing this civilian airspace capability really that critical?
At the minute, there do not seem to be any plans for a Watchkeeper ground station to be placed on any RN vessels, although the Unmanned Warrior trials may see that change. Indeed, the Royal Navy is planning two new unmanned systems, Flexible Deployable UAS (FDUAS) and Joint Mini UAS (JMUAS).
Have a nice video to finish.