A Polish Watchkeeper

Watchkeeper is a tactical Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) coming into service with the Royal Artillery. As described in my post from 2012, Watchkeeper Then and Now, it is arguably one of the most advanced systems in its class.

Watchkeeper Afghanistan 03

As it comes into service the prime contractor, Thales, are no doubt looking for export opportunities.

The most obvious second home for Watchkeeper is France but not of Sagem have anything to do with it so only time will tell.

Janes have reported this weekend that Poland is interested.

Thales UK and Poland’s WB Electronics have agreed to jointly develop and offer the WK450 Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for the Polish Armed Forces Gryf (Gryphon) programme.

Defence exports great for the UK and are often used as justification for the state investing in the development of defence technology and not just buying off the shelf. Watchkeeper has no doubt been an expensive system, roughly a billion Pounds for the air vehicles, infrastructure and training systems.

So my question is a simple one.

Given the MoD makes great efforts to retain intellectual property rights on most of its major projects, if Thales UK sell Watchkeeper, or a derivative of it that has clearly benefited from the MoD funded Watchkeeper programme, to Poland, France or anyone else for that matter;

Does the MoD can anything back, directly into its budget?

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July 19, 2015 4:23 pm

Answer is no. They are separate contracts with a private entity.

What exports do, is potentially (a) reduce the cost of future orders for vehicles, ancillaries & spares via higher volume and live production lines; (b) possibly introduce new equipment on an export customer’s dime – vid. Storm Shadow on Typhoon; and (c) create commonality with those allies if they find themselves deployed together.

If you want foreign sales to factor into development costs, you have to embark on multination projects. Which have their own problems, including inflated costs of all sorts throughout.

July 19, 2015 10:13 pm

I agree; MOD has no share from which to profit. This is just one of the negative aspects of competitive procurement.

Bear in mind four teams spent their own funds bidding for the contract; MOD wrote its requirements and subsequently provided background information, suggestions and limited guidance, but in essence by the end of the bidding process the systems on offer were designed. In the case of Thales they already had Elbit (and many other companies) in their team and had bid Hermes 450 and the sort of ground stations (RT has previously explained) that MOD wanted – all developed on the team members’ own funds. None of that belongs to MOD.

If MOD – or more accurately HM Treasury – wants to profit from exports, it needs to fund development. It chooses not to.

July 19, 2015 11:13 pm

Not to mention that the base vehicle is from the Israeli Hermes 450, which if the MoD got too sticky about, any other buyer can simply go straight to Israel and get it. Sure, the bells and whistles might be different, but from what I can see, the difference is slight. In fact, I think there is a lot of stuff in the market that is better than what is fielded right now, it is the barrier of paperwork, “trials” and RFIs that are stopping the technology from permeating into the armed forces. Remember, the starting point for government contracts is a RFI from the government, not a proposal from the outside market, so if the army feels like it does not need the new equipment, there is no way for the newer stuff to make it into service.

Just came back from my refresher course in the army, the camp I was staying in this time was next to an airbase so I see (and hear) these flying lawnmowers every day.

July 20, 2015 12:57 am

The air vehicle is the simple bit, the smarts are in the sensor fit and ground control arrangements. UK has a depth of experience, the earliest and continuous army user of UAS, back to 1964. I read the minutes of the MoD cttee meeting in 1962 (in TNA), needless to say the Chief of Air Staff opposed army UAS, ‘promising’ 20 recce sorties per day on the 1 (BR) Corps front. Needless to say the CIGS was not that stupid.

July 20, 2015 3:33 pm

Lots of good detail on this particular project and solution in the comments.

More generally, I read somewhere (can’t remember the source) that Japan has implemented such a “fraction of export profits” plough-back clause with their defence contractors. Of course defence exports for them is a whole new ball game, and they do fund their contractors projects heavily.

July 20, 2015 8:25 pm

The answer is that yes, the UK can get back money (royalties) if it owns relevant intellectual property obtained via providing development funds, but no, the money does not go into the MoD budget but instead goes directly to the Treasury.