Watchkeeper Images


The MoD have just released a trio of great Watchkeeper air vehicle images;

Army Watchkeeper RPAS During Trials

A Watchkeeper WK450 Remotely Piloted Air System RPAS prepares for takeoff during a test flight in the UK.

Watchkeeper is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for all weather, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR).

Watchkeeper provides enhanced UAV capability that will enable commanders to detect and track targets for long periods, without the need to deploy troops into potentially sensitive or dangerous areas. The system is capable of rapid deployment and operations anywhere in the world and will support the information requirements of all three services.

Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle
Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle
Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle
Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle
Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle
Watchkeeper RPAS Air Vehicle

Read more about the Watchkeeper system and its history at the links below

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Its kind of hard to get excited over a capability that seems to have taken such a long time to generate.

The Other Chris

Training is one thing, but shifting the units through general airspace is the corker. Have a think about that for a minute.

Daniele Mandelli

Talking of DA42’s, what happened to the RAF Twin Stars? Are they still in service and with whom?


Actually it has a very significant difference from Reaper, and other recce a/c with advanced sensors. It is totally controlled by the ground forces that need its imagery, ie not subject to the vagaries of the air tasking system. This means it is very responsive to the tactical situation on the ground.

Malcolm Whitlock

Does anybody know what if ever is the % of flights/mission’s in which they have lost contact/control with such vehicles?

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same

Watchkeeper may or may not be initially tasked in the ATO but if it wants to fly it will have to be integrated with the ATO or it will not be making an appearance over the battlefield. NFS had to be tied in with ATO tasking in Libya due to the height the shells reach.


“organisational cooperation and communication issue”, oh that it was that simple. The real problem is called ‘an independent air force’, the sooner the RFC is recreated (with its cost efficient rank structure (no need for anybody above one star) and hopefully picking up the AACs fondness for NCO pilots, the better :-)

The original reason for UK UAVs, in the early 1960s (as usual the Royal Regiment, thinking ahead of their time), was artillery target acquisition. It’s still a major task in anything other than low intensity operations.


Following the comments that have been made about the long term Scavenger requirement (the 2030 one and not the 2018 one) in public I am increasingly of the view that over the long term we will start to see differentiation re-emerge. The RAF are clear that they want the ultimate Reaper replacement to be survivable and it seems more than coincidence that FCAS currently has an in-service target date of 2030 too and is also looking at unmanned vehicles. What seems most likely at this point is that the Air Service is thinking of re-blending the recce and combat roles within a survivable UAS platform. Given the constant improvement in sensors and the and the shrinking platform fleet it makes sense.

The Army on the other hand, clearly wants to be responsible for more if its ISTAR requirement, and will have to be, given what it is doing with precision fires at range meaning they will retain a tactical and increasingly theatre ISTAR capability themselves.

My issue with Watchkeeper is that it seems to have cost a fortune, and taken years to produce, and now seems likely to miss, or only achieve one tour, in the one war it would be quite useful for. All the time being a pair of MOTS sensors on a MOTS platform. I just hope there is some Gucci comms and intel exploitation capability underpinning it to justify the time and cost.

Derek has touched on what I thought Watch keeper was all about. Being organic, mobile and used when the need for Reaper is not present/possible.

But its just the fact that this thing needs the same sort of support and airfield as a Reaper does… kinda defeats the point… if they could use watch-keeper then why not Reaper? Which has the added bonus of weapons?
I thought the Army would want something that comes in a container, can be carted on an off-road truck/mastiff, could be made ready in a matter of hours and sent off using a car park, playing field or road… not an airfield, that is just so…fixed…

I imagine the Watch-keeper is more mobile and it being smaller and such means it doesn’t need quite as much support/space/runway as Reaper, but I guess we will see how it develops and is used.


mike, Reaper is the size of a small manned aircraft, it’s fairly big. The Hermes/Watchkeeper is only half its’ size. Not sure on how you guys use it, but the Watchkeeper can be launched from a dirt track if an airfield is not available. Smaller MAY also mean harder to detect.

One other possibility is gliding capability. I never seen an MQ-9 glide before, so I really don’t know if it is a factor, but these UAVs cut their engines near the target and glide by the target on a recon pass so it is totally silent. Past the target, they turn on that lawnmower engine again and climb for more altitude before repeating.

Or maybe it is just cost. MQ-9s are expensive.


Obsvr with the fondness of using NCOs as pilots I assume retention must be high in the AAC and nearly fully manned? ;)

Has scan eagle ever been used in a land environment?


The US Army basically does use a Reaper, except it has a heavy fuel engine and they call it Grey Eagle. In its IGE form it has a 45 hour endurance and very impressive sensor payloads.


A quick search suggests the cost of units of the first batch of Watchkeepers equaled the price of a Reaper. The marginal cost of additional Watchkeepers might be different.

It’s unlikely that Watchkeeper will turn out to be worth the money.


Why a joint air force, what are the cost savings?

If there are so many cost savings why not just HM armed forces and be done with it?

Has watch-keeper actually flown from a rough environment yet? From any roads?

All this RFC talk is just horlicks… it just smacks of the RA trying to secure a role in which others (AAC – or as x calls them, the RFC ;) ) could take on. I thought the point was to have something organic to the army that can move with the army… this can’t…not yet, not what I have seen and heard. Just seems we’ve gone down that gold-plated route again, which means we wont dare try and be expeditionary/rough field with it.

Scan Eagle or even the rotary UAV’s like fire scout… would have been better use, more mobile, but less capable/more flimsy I guess.


mike, not Watchkeeper per se, but the Hermes 450.


Re: Scaneagle on land

……no comment…. :)

Let us just say Insitu is in good hands for the next 5-10 years.

Daniele Mandelli

So much negativity!

The anti RAF bias is just nonsense, and as long as we have it supporting our boys and girls I don’t give a monkeys which arm of service operate it!

I for one am pleased to see it finally entering service.

I thought the delays were not to do with the aircraft but with the MAA.

I was also under the impression that it did have a rough field capability and that Upavon grass airfield would be used alongside Boscombe for training.


Mike – As I understood it at least two of the competitors offered a big MALE runway UAV and a much smaller ramp launched vehicle much like Phoenix was. The requirement had aspects that required far more payload (and to some extent more time on station) than the small UAVs could cope with, even though the ramp launched option felt more appropriate for tactical RA use. The winning Thales solution continued to work on the ramp-launched Hermes 180 for a while, but ultimately it was deleted. Not being on the inside you’d have to surmise the RA decided to keep the higher spec sensor capability and endurance in preference to retaining a rough terrain forward deployment option, no doubt the choice being triggered by cost pressures on a limited budget. So the RA is left with a light aircraft, described as remote piloted not autonomous, that needs a runway (or strip of runway-smooth tarmac) and which will need the same sort of operating and support skills as RAF’s Reapers.

@ Chris

Shame, thanks for clearing that up.

Seems they went with an option that is more RAF than Army – the whole point of the RA having these, I thought, was to be jut as mobile as its pieces, and not require the support the RAF needs for its assets. instead we have a system that could – at best – use roads near the front-line, which is good enough I suppose.

Seems a step back from what they had though – operational flexibility wise, something that could move with the army and deploy quickly (in aircraft terms).

Darned Consultant

There is a heck of a lot of negativity here, this is a unique system, which is not a Army Reaper knockoff. It has an utterly different operating ethos to the Reaper. It is an RPS but its a heck of a lot more autonomous than Reaper.

Daniele is, I think, correct in pointing at the source of the last big delay.

Mike, the thing fits in an ISO container, the Control unit is an ISO container sized box, Its been built for transportability (one of the articles mention a single C130 lift gives 24hr capability). Those boingy legs and bouncy wheels would I believe, be good for rough strips (one would almost think designed for it).

@ Darned C

Ta for that, kinda improved my mood a bit regarding it.
If we all went for off the shelf, there would be no British industry. Still, a dear price, I hope we dont go the usual route and not capitalize on it. It has potential.

This thing needs to be mobile, and used in the field, not at a kucci airfield… that’s what we crabs do :P


mike, what else do you want it to do? It’s an ISTAR platform and maybe a comms relay. That is its job. What else can it do? Deliver pizza? And for all the talk on arming your surveillance platform, was there any thought on how a wing load will affect performance parameters like endurance or speed?

There is something to be said for keeping your platform specialised. Like maximum endurance and speed.

@ Observer

I am more getting at the fact it needs a rather static airfield and equipment, and is not as mobile as the Army is. It remains to be seen whether it can (and I am sure it will) do rough field operations.

The Other Chris

The Hermes 450B differs, as does the Watchkeeper, from the 450 by mating the wing to the fuselage. The base 450 model suspends the fuselage from the wing with a pylon.

These were modifications for the UK which, along with a reinforced landing gear, are intended to support rough-field operations.


At the bottom of this page there is a piccie of catapult launch. The catapult itself folds into a std container, though when extended for use (e.g. form the back of a lorry) it is 15m long.

Watchkeeper has enough range to find a prepared field for recovery. The point is that it *can* travel with the forward units, and it can be prepared for launch v quickly when the need arises.


Cheers for that C:
Now Watch-keeper makes more sense, more of that style of operations.


And I have personally seen UAV crew ready a rough field for launching UAVs, so sorry mike if your complaints sound rather nitpicky to me.



Has the addition of systems to allow operation in civil airspace had an unexpected effect on the operating empty weight. Which may affect rough field performance or payload?.

@ Observer

No worries, understandable, it seems there has been very little out-of-the-loop info/PR regarding rough field operations. I would have thought the RA would be very eager to show how different it is to the Reaper.

The Other Chris

I’m not involved but doubt it. Mission payload’s still listed at 150kg. Compass is around 40kg, I-Master 30kg. The base 450 model listed the ability to carry the two external fuel tanks (50 litres) alongside mission payload, no reason to assume otherwise for the WK450.

Most of the civilian grading kit is a radio to allow operators to talk to ATC “from” the aircraft, lights and transponders. Not too heavy.

Still no official plans to weaponise announced but no denials at the in service press launch either. There’s a video of the interview floating around somewhere but I can’t place it right now. The SI into the crash of ZK51 makes no secret of the intention and the JUEP program covered it too.

For comparison LMM is around the 13kg mark, Viper Strike around 20kg. Sure I’ll be corrected by those more knowledgeable.


@ Mark – Scan Eagle is used by 20 STA Regt RAA, that’s Royal Australian Artillery, for the under-informed.

Watchkeeper replaces Phoenix, which replaced AN/USD 501 Midge (not forgetting Westland’s disaster MRUASTAS rotary wing UAV attempted replacement; 501 was also used by GE arty divisional observation battalions), which replaced SD-1. Interestingly the SD-1 acquisition was approved in the very early days of MoD(ie soon after unification), at the EC meeting (comprising the four defence chiefs) only the Chief of Air Staff opposed it because TSR2 could do the job. This is typical RAF thinking confusing technology with operational needs.

You need to understand a bit of military history, in WW1 UK won the CB battle, key to this was the work of the RFC’s corps sqns in acquiring and engaging GE btys with observed fire. Sound ranging and flash spotting helped but the RFC was the key. Post war this task soon called ‘Arty/R’ was not really supported by the RAF with any enthusiasm, in WW2 it was patchy at best (the SAAF recce sqn in the Med being the best performers). It was still on the books in the 1950s but almost certainly wishful thinking. This need for CB tgt acquisition is what drove the RA interest in UAVs. Of course until Phoenix it really was focussed on CB tgt acquisition, but with Phoenix the rest of the army woke up to the potential.

I suspect Watchkeeper was a difficult decision, the problem was and is zero length launch and zero length recovery in the forward areas. It’s easy with small tactical UAVs like Desert Hawk (also operated by RA), but longer flying time, more powerful sensors and other requirements need larger a/c making 0/0 tricky. The alternative is to accept the need for some form of runway (not forgetting Swedish AF practices), recognise the great improvements in tactical data comms and capacity, and base UAVs further back but with far greater endurance than the very few hours or less of earlier types.

As for costs of Watchkeeper, comparison, cost adjusted, with the COBRA program (a multi-national CB radar) might be revealing.


A couple more points. The WK program it not just a/c and a few GCS. There are also vehicles and equipment of ground detachments able to provide imagery at various military unit and formation HQs as needed.

@ Mark, I know nothing about AAC retention, last time I flew in an AAC a/c the pilot was a 3* general with a WO1 QHI beside him, and it was at night, out and in to fields lit by a couple of landrover headlights.


Clear C&C arrangements are essential for effective military operations. Wishful thinking about ‘coordination’ are a recipe for screw-ups, big screw-ups. This is particularly important for artillery where range means a significant area of influence. The principal enunciated by Wavell in the 1930s, applies to both arty and the RAF – ‘command at the highest level, control at the lowest that can exercise it effectively’.

I’d guess that the control relationship being applied with a Watchkeeper bty in relation to a brigade in ‘in direct support’, meaning priority of effort to the brigade and provision of tactical ground elements to the bde, but enabling the provision of air vehicle support outside the brigade if a higher commander orders it. This is bread and butter to arty but somewhat alien to the RAF.

Darned Consultant

@ ACC… There is no catapult launch – the other actual Watchkeeper pages linked at the top of the piece make it clear this was an option, but was dropped.

Mark – In terms of needing a permanent runway – looking at the vids, the bits n bobs needed for it are deployed and set up at the site used. I’d assume they come in one of the ISO containers, or trucks. So you either have a bit of land big enough to land a C130 on, trundle it out, set up and Bobs your mums brother! Or stick it on the back of a lorry (on of them big thingumies the army has a few of) find a patch of land and do similar. Watch the vids, it gets wheeled out behind a truck, lined up and away it goes. Then when it lands and is stopped by a arrester cable – so short runways only needed!

I suspect the RA are more than happy to deploy at forward bases or mixed airfields too – the washing facilities would be better!

Clearance for ops from an airfield such as Boscombe is a big thing in itself – as is clearance for ops around Salisbury Plain.


@DC, yes, absolutely right. I should have spent a few more words on it existing, having been tested – but not bought!
– we have a discussion on that in the TD archives between 1 and 2 years back from now

Actually, I am not that concerned about that as long as the 5 converted business birds with their vast range are available, to fly in. And there is some co-use (classified?) of their mobile ground stations and of those that Watchkeeper will/ can use.

Just that “officially” these ground stations are soon to be carted to the dump, and they are also the (only) inter-operability element (in the field, as opposed to having a “jointed” HQ – guess with who in command there ) with the US JSTARS.
– even JSTARS has now been marked as needing replacement as the detection & classification range is about the same as that for the countermeasures… to take them out of the sky, even without needing any air-launched AWACS killer missiles.


I don’t think anybody is saying watch keeper is pointless, though there are questions to be asked as to precisely why it has taken so long.

I think the point that is being, perhaps clumsily, made is that there is a risk of UK airborne ISTAR platform procurement not being properly managed with the potential to result in the sort of mess that occurred with helicopter procurement (which has taken nearly 50 years to sort out). For the reason I outlined earlier, interns of what seems to be being looked at for the future, I am actually rather optimistic though real questions remain to be resolved over longterm SIGINT/ELINT and the future of Sentinel.


Looking round Googlespace for other things, I found this: and this – perhaps what part of the Lockheed version of Watchkeeper might have been… What the images don’t show is that the 15 hour endurance diesel powered UAV is not big: – clearly a truck mounted catapult. Phoenix sized then.