The first proper UAV in UK service (accepting the 1939 Queen Bee target system) was the MQM57-Falconer 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 instead, SD-1, an abbreviation of the US designation, ISD-1.
The Canadair Midge 501 replaced the Falconer, a UK version of the Canadair 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 enemy artillery so they could be destroyed in a proper big guns artillery duel!. The Midge came into service 1971, again with 94 Locating Regiment Royal Artillery. The cameras from the Midges were also mounted on Army Air Corps De Havilland Beavers, still flown in the AAC Historic Flight.
The videos below show the CL-289 or AN/USD 502, an improved version of the CL-89.
They were used during the 1991 Gulf War, but reportedly not to a great effect. Well before the 1991 Gulf War the limitations of Midge were widely acknowledged, mainly its inability to provide real-time imagery in the context of a fast moving battlespace.
The year after Midge came into service, Westland Helicopters began concept development work on a small unmanned rotary craft. By 1975, this initial concept and wind tunnel work had progressed to the development of an aerial test bed called Mote. Also in development during the same period was the Shorts Skyspy and Canadair CL-227, all small, unmanned and rotary. After Mote, Westland Helicopters developed the Wisp.
All were considered by the Army but eventually Westland were chosen to develop a larger version of the Wisp, called Wideye. Wideye would be part of the Supervisor Programme. Powered by two 18 hp engines, driving contra-rotating blades, its payload was a Marconi Aviation stabilised camera with radio data link, able to provide imagery to a range of 50km. The selection of Wisp/Wideye was seen as a lower risk option but the ducted fan Skyspy from Shorts clearly showed potential for much greater resistance to landing damage than an open rotor system, and its radar signature was also considerably lower.
Supervisor and Wideye were intended to come into service in the early eighties, but in 1980, the MoD cancelled the Supervisor Programme after spending £12m on the feasibility studies. It was reported that the MoD decided to opt for a lower risk solution.
Midge soldiered on.
After cancelling Supervisor, the MoD went back to the drawing board and started concept work for a Midge replacement, again. Contracts were awarded to four industry teams;
- Marconi Aviation, Cranfield Institute of Technology and Flight Refueling proposed a fixed wing aircraft based on the Marconi Machan. The Machan had a 12ft wingspan with a 2 hours endurance and 15kg payload.
- Westland proposed a development of the Wideye, again.
- Ferranti proposed both fixed and rotary wing platforms, a modified target drone from AEL and the Canadair CL-227.
- British Aerospace Dynamics proposed a development of its Stabileye unmanned fixed wing aircraft.
These contracts all completed during the early eighties.
The 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. Phoenix was primarily intended to provide targeting information for the 30km range Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), the first four of which had been purchased for delivery in 1985, from Vought Corporation for 5.2 million.
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 described above.
The £80 million Phoenix programme prime contract was awarded to GEC Avionics in 1985. Flight Refuelling was to develop the unmanned aerial vehicle, powered by a Normalair Garret WAM 342 two-stroke two-cylinder engine.
In many ways, Phoenix was ahead of its time, recognising that the majority of the cost would be in the sensor, not the air vehicle. Therefore, in order to protect the expensive sensor, they were fitted into a demountable pod and the air vehicle landed on its back. The landing would be cushioned by a frangible shock absorber. The tw0 were called the Air Vehicle Taxi (AVT) and Air Vehicle Pod (APD). The launcher used a modified version of the All American Engineering system used for the US Aquila system. 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 air vehicle was moving. The imagery was transmitted back to the ground control station using a steerable J Band datalink.
As an aside, the Royal Navy also looked at vertical UAVs in 1988. The ML Aviation SPRITE (Surveillance Patrol Reconnaissance Intelligence Target Designation Electronic Warfare) received funding from the Admiralty Research Establishment and conducted a number of trials on board Royal Navy ships.
In 1995, the MoD considered cancelling Phoenix, it was by then six years late and estimated to cost double the approved contract value. It was originally planned to enter service in 1989 and although accepted by the British Army in 1994, not a single one had entered operational service a year later, with problems persisting with the data link, ground control station computer systems and recovery equipment. The project was not cancelled but the MoD gave GEC Marconi 12 months to sort out the many problems with Phoenix.
One of the main problems was caused by harsh landings damaging the sensor pod, a change from a frangible hump to a slow inflating airbag was the eventual solution. A post-Gulf War proposal to incorporate a more powerful engine that could cope with weather other than that found in Central Europe was rejected on cost grounds.
Despite the 12 month deadline imposed on GEC by the MoD in 1995, Phoenix came into service in December 1998.
It was also clear that despite the problems, Phoenix represented an opportunity to broaden its initial application in artillery support to a broader battlefield surveillance role, some investigation was also carried out to look at electronic warfare, laser designator and radio relay payloads. As early as 1996, the British Army were thinking about a Phoenix replacement, a replacement that would be characterised by a step change in endurance.
Phoenix had its first operational debut in Kosovo, where 13 of the 27 deployed were lost.
The deployment was widely considered to be a bit of a failure, despite Phoenix catching the Serbs in the act of flying Mig 21’s that had survived the NATO air campaign out of the airport at Pristina.
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 for 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 an enemy ground and air attack, the Serbs even had some success with flying a helicopter parallel to the airborne systems and simply machine gunning them out of the sky. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the operational use of UAV’s in the Balkans, apart from their vulnerability to even half competent air defence forces, was the difficulty of matching a strategic air campaign to what were in effect, tactical assets, being used in an operation for which they were not designed for.
A few later during Operation Telic the Phoenix UAV had another 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.
Despite this glowing reference, the loss 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 problems of hot weather operation considered in 1995, were realised in an operational theatre. The last operational flight of Phoenix was carried out by Koehler’s Troop in May 2006, at Camp Abu Naji in Iraq.
Phoenix was withdrawn from service in March 2008, the image below shows the out of service parade at Roberts Barracks, Larkhill, on the 20th
The estimated cost was £260 million.
Whilst in no way a success, Phoenix demonstrated the value of UAV’s and further established valuable expertise and experience.
The Watchkeeper story starts with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review in which a break from the Cold War was described and a move to an expeditionary strategy proposed.
It also recognised the importance of information and surveillance capabilities, pointing the Phoenix as an exemplar (stop laughing at the back)
By the time the Strategic Defence Review New Chapter was published in July 2002, Watchkeeper was on the scene.
DERA (in conjunction with Cranfield Aerospace and Tasuma) had 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 that would form part of the deliberations on future 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, a larger system designed for higher levels (/Brigade/Division) than SENDER with a 150km range and dual electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar payloads. SENDER was also intended to have minefield detection and electronic warfare payloads.
The MoD invited twelve companies to bid for the Sender unit UAV assessment phase in 1999. The Draft ITT was issued to Aerospatiale Matra, Bell Textron, GKN Westland, Hunting, Thomson-CSF, Lockheed Martin, Matra BAe Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Racal, Raytheon and TRW. A number of the teams proposed the Bell Eagle Eye tiltrotor and the IAI Searcher.
Four companies were to be down selected with the equipment intended to enter service in 2008.
Also in 1999, the MoD and DoD agreed on a letter of intent to explore joint development opportunities for tactical unmanned systems. The MoD also described a requirement for a data link relay vehicle programme called Extender.
As the twelve competing organisations were readying their bids, the MoD decided to merge Sender and Spectator into a new programme, called Watchkeeper, once the link to TRACER had been broken. There are conflicting reports about this, some indicate that Sender and Spectator informed Watchkeeper, others, that they were cancelled in order to provide Watchkeeper with a clean slate.
The user requirement statement was;
In 2000, the MoD awarded £3.5 million study contracts for Watchkeeper to BAE, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Thomson Racal Defence.
BAE proposed the RQ-1 Predator and AAI Shadow, Lockheed Martin, the EADS Eagle and Meggitt Spectre 3, Northrop Grumman, the Fire Scout and RUAG Ranger, and, Thales, the Lydian Hermes 450 and 150.
Watchkeeper was notionally a British Army capability but as with FRES and many other projects at the time, there was a joint element. With experience from Kosovo still relatively fresh, the RAF were reportedly interested in its bomb damage assessment and target designation capabilities. For the RN, the Watchkeeper User Requirements Document (URD) included a range of maritime and littoral battlespace capability requirements, in addition to applicability for a maritime deployed force (Royal Marines).
In 2001, the MoD indicated that Watchkeeper was to be accelerated with a planned FOC in 2007 and IOC in 2005. Assessment Phase contracts were let to BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Thales and Northrop Grumman, after which two would be down selected.
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 were increased considerably.
Raytheon and General Atomics conducted a study on the feasibility of controlling an RQ-1 Predator using the ASTOR mission system, they suggested this capability could be rolled into Watchkeeper.
Two consortia were down selected in 2003 for the Systems Integration Assurance Phase;
Thales-UK; with Aerosystems International, Cubic, LogicaCMG, Vega, Marshall Special Vehicles, 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.
£8m contracts were awarded to the two down selected bidders for risk reduction work.
In April 2004, the US Government approved the export of the General Atomics/Sandia National Labs developed Lynx synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for use on a future Watchkeeper air vehicle, not the BAE proposed RQ-1 Predator as proposed by BAE because they had not made the down select cut.
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.
Thales announced the Watchkeeper sensor package in 2005;
Watchkeeper would be a single air vehicle with a two sensor payload and a ground control station mounted on a Supacat vehicle that could be carried onboard a c-130 Hercules.
Over the next couple of years a number of vendor contracts were announced as the project progressed, QinetiQ for example;
In 2007, the UK acquired Predator B/Reaper under an urgent operational requirement.
As a stop gap for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, the MoD obtained a number of Hermes 450’s from Thales UK 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. This Urgent Operational Requirement has covered 5 task lines. 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 hour basis’ and the 6 air vehicles have reportedly collected the majority of airborne imagery used in theatre.
In a 2007 memo to the Defence Select Committee, the MoD described current status;
Watchkeeper first flights
Details of a possible weapon carriage capability emerged in 2009, likely Thales Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM), or a freefall variant. Meanwhile, the in theatre Hermes 450 contract was extended to 2011, by which time Watchkeeper was still scheduled to be in service. By this point, it had flown in excess of 19,000 hours.
2010 saw the first UK flight of Watchkeeper and the award of a three-year £55 million support contract to Thales UK.
Flight testing continued, in 2011, Watchkeeper flew a 14-hour flight in which it was flown to its service ceiling of 4,880m (16,000ft) and 115km from the West Wales Airport. The two sensors and data link were also tested.
It was also planned for Watchkeeper to be deployed using Viking tracked vehicles, 21 tactical terminals.
France and the UK signed a defence cooperation treaty in 2010 at Lancaster House, central to the agreement was that France would evaluate Watchkeeper from 2012 with a view to its own requirements for a similar capability.
In Afghanistan, Hermes 450 ZK515 crashed. The resulting Service Inquiry made for uncomfortable reading for the Royal Artillery, making a total of 61 recommendations.
In 2011, it was announced that Watchkeeper would be deployed to Afghanistan the following year.
A December 2012 Parliamentary Answer clarified the position on arming Watchkeeper and maritime operations;
By the end of 2013, the leased Hermes 450’s had flown over 70,000 hours across 5 task lines. 2013 also saw a significant milestone with the award of its Statement of Design Assurance (STDA) from the Military Aviation Authority (MAA). This was a result of a tailored process, the full process being defined after Watchkeeper had been started.
By the end of operations in Afghanistan, the contract Hermes 450’s had flown 100,000 hours
Release to Service certification was still a year away.
In March 2014, the MoD announced that Watchkeeper had been given clearance to begin flying training in the UK with Royal Artillery aircrew.
This Release to Service allowed flying training from the QinetiQ facility at Boscombe Down, shown below
It was also reported that all the ground stations and half of the 54 air vehicles had been delivered to the Army.
Commenting on the announcement, Michael Fallon M (Secretary of State for Defence) said;
Am sure Elbit and pretty much everyone involved with Phoenix raised a smile at that one.
In October 2014, it was revealed that Watchkeeper had deployed to Afghanistan.
The deployment was to cover the withdrawal of forces and specifically, utilise the i-Master SAR to counter dust storm blackouts experienced by visual systems.
Three air vehicles flew for a total of 146 hours.
Commenting on the Afghanistan deployment ahead of the 2015 Paris Air Show, Lieutenant Colonel Craig Palmer, SO1 UAS Army HQ, said;
He also commented on the number of air vehicles compared to the number of deployed systems;
I think he may have been over-egging the causes of Phoenix losses, only 15% of those losses were attributed to enemy action, and none of them because they flew into the teeth of an integrated air defence system.
A Freedom of Information request in 2015 revealed the shortage of pilots for Watchkeeper, as at November 2015, only 4 military and two civilian pilots have been certified to fly Watchkeeper.It is planned for 24 to be available by the end of 2017, broadly speaking, the same as at FOC. Only 8 aircraft are in regular use with the rest in storage although there are 24 trained launch and recovery personnel and 20 maintainers.
One of the most significant challenges (and source of delays) has been the desire the achieve certification to fly in civil airspace. The Watchkeeper Project CLAIRE (CiviL Airspace Integration of RPAS in Europe) flight demonstration completed in September 2015, showing that it could fly alongside a manned aircraft in civil airspace.
This doesn’t sound much in words, but it was an immense challenge.
The image below shows call sign CRONOS 150, Watchkeeper
The flight lasted over three hours, including one hour in non-segregated airspace.
In October 2015, a representative from the Civil aviation authority provided additional information on the first flight described above;
On the 2nd of November 2015, a Watchkeeper air vehicle suffered extensive damage during a landing mishap at Boscombe Down, the third to date. In the other two incidents, one air vehicle was written off and the other, repaired.
Following the 2015 SDSR, a number of changes were made in the organisation of unmanned system in the Royal Artillery. The main change was a move from integrated unmanned regiments to single system regiments. Previously, 32 Regiment and 47 Regiment operated both Watchkeeper and Desert Hawk, going forward, 32 Regiment will operate Desert Hawk and 47 Regiment, Watchkeeper. 47 Regiment is also planned to resubordinate to from 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade (1ISRX) to the command of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), this allowing the Watchkeeper force to take advantage of the air safety resources within JHC.
43 Battery 47 Regiment started a period of Watchkeeper flying training on Ascension Island to take advantage of better weather and infrequent manned flights, in many ways, it is an ideal location for unmanned aircraft flying training.
FOC is still planned for 2017 with an OSD of 2042.
Although the National Audit Office stopped reporting on Watchkeeper several years ago but the Major Projects Authority does provide some financial and project information.
The Project Lydian contractor provisioned Hermes 450’s for Afghanistan cost a total of £206 million. Watchkeeper Assessment Phase costs were £65 million, Demonstration and Manufacture Phase, £839 million.
Watchkeeper is certainly late, by several years. During the project definition phases, it was envisaged that full operating capability could be achieved in 2007.
The MPA describes current status as;
If FOC is achieved in 2017, it will be 17 years after the initial concept contracts were awarded. Issues have been many, certification, software and de-icing systems have all proven problematical.
Changes have also been made to the underlying requirements as a result of experience in Afghanistan.
In July 2016, Cubic were awarded a contract extension from U-Tacs for their data link
Also in July 2016, the MoD awarded a £80 million support contract to Thales.
The Service Inquiry into the loss of a Watchkeeper air vehicle on 16th October 2014 at West Wales Airport was released in August 2016.
The Army will have thirty air vehicles in operation and twenty-four in reserve.