Watchkeeper Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS)

Watchkeeper is an advanced Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS), currently coming into service with the Royal Artillery in the British Army.

Watchkeeper is a Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TUAS), currently coming into service with the Royal Artillery in the British Army.

Thales Watchkeeper Air Vehicle

The value of aerial reconnaissance…

I hope none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think aeroplanes will be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war. There is only one way for commanders to get information by reconnaissance, by cavalry

General Douglas Haig, 1914.


Table of Contents


Watchkeeper History

Watchkeeper Description

Summary and a Few Thoughts



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Change Date Change Record
 01/03/2017 initial issue
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December 24, 2015 3:20 am

I don’t claim to be a full expert, but isn’t Watchkeeper another piece of duplication/”too many cooks spoiling the broth?” What more can it add for joint force ISTAR when there are other manned (eg. Wildcat) and unmanned (Reaper/Protector) ISTAR options? Or does it help in large scale warfightig scenario.

TD, the CO of 47 RA says it will be under JHC command. RA is just the unit. I suppose in the future they can rename the unit as 47 AAC?

December 24, 2015 5:14 am

I have been around the Hermes for quite a few years, one thing to note is that it sounds like a lawnmower when the engine is turned on. A very loud lawnmower. Unless there has been a change to the engine from the 2 stroke Wankel, you can forget about the fables of “UAVs sneaking in”. Usually, anyone close by will be able to hear it. From what I have seen, the protocol for usage involves climbing the aircraft to a high altitude, turning the engine off and letting it glide silently past the target, not over it. Once they completed the pass, the operators will then turn the engine back on and return to a higher altitude.

If you are anywhere near the vicinity of the UAV when the engine is on, you’ll definitely know it is there. Just imagine a flying lawnmower. That is how it sounds like.

December 24, 2015 8:09 am

Are you likely to discuss a weaponised version of Watchkeeper for UK service? This is already being contemplated for Poland and the ME, and I understand that the RA is at least considering it.
It would seem like a useful capability for the UK to have, even if weapons use was limited to targets of opportunity. Would providing the additional training for pilots be a major stumbling block?

Peter Elliott
December 24, 2015 9:18 am

The thing to remember is that Watchkeeper’s primary role is making out battlefield artillary effective. As the Russians have recently demonstrated that is a critical capability. The more weapons you hang off Watchkeeper the less range and endurance it will have, compromosing its primary mission.

My guess is therefore that UK Watchkeeper won’t be weaponised. We have Reaper/Protector for that role which other countries do not.

December 24, 2015 12:56 pm

PE is right. There is also the problem of capability creep. The old UAVs were conceptualized as cheap disposable units that you can lose without worrying about it while flooding the battlefield with sensors and maybe even suicide drones (e.g Harpy). With the stacking of all the capabilities, UAVs have gone beyond “cheap and plentiful” or even “disposable”. So the more capabilities you stack on it, like weapons, radar, IR/EO etc, the less disposable it becomes and the more you cannot afford to lose even a single one. There has to be a breaking point somewhere when it becomes more economical and survivable to simply send in a high speed recon fighter.

Peter Elliott
December 24, 2015 1:03 pm

The end game for “Capability Creep” is presumably a stealthy Fast Jet UCAS with the ability to penetrate defended airspace without endangering a pilot.

Which is not to say we don’t also need something cheap and plentiful to spot the Artilliary and give a Brigade, Batallion, Company commander an eye in the sky.

December 24, 2015 2:00 pm

In the case of France the Reaper drones are an important capability. Today we could not do without them, be it Iraq, Syria, and Africa. In Iraq and Syria, we do not use ours but almost no shot is performed without an identification validated by a drone to avoid collateral damage. In Africa, drones allow us to carry out many missions and contributed to the success we have achieved during special operations. With the drones, we arrive well enough to follow the terrorist groups and we were able to attack the many small ammunition depots and fuel they had constituted.

stephen duckworth
December 24, 2015 3:43 pm

Very interesting article TD ,I never knew we had been running reconnaissance drones for so long.
Arming the Watchkeeper seems foolish to me as pointed out above will reduce it allready limited endurance. On a fast jet being used to penetrate contested airspace that’s the huge package the F35B will bring to the party replacing what we would and have tasked Tornadoes with Raptor pods with.
For Observer :-

Brian Black
Brian Black
December 24, 2015 4:46 pm

It is a surprise how far our unmanned aircraft go back. All largely unnoticed until the current generation in service.

The Royal Navy’s FDUAS program seems primarily concerned with a frigate deployable system.

The aircraft carriers should be capable of embarking conventional take off and landing UAVs a fair bit larger than the little Watchkeeper.

Greater range, payload, and power would probably be better in relation to aircraft carrier operations; but I could imagine that Watchkeeper might be a relatively low risk, low cost first step towards a more capable carrier-borne UAV.

HMAFR. Apache is now in JHC, but prior to JHC (late ’90s), Army Air Corps operated Lynx TOW came under Royal Artillery command along with all other Army missile systems. So there is no real reason why the RA unit operating Watchkeeper within JHC would have to be remade as an AAC unit.

Peter Elliott
December 24, 2015 6:40 pm

I know there is a launch catapult option for Hermes/Watchkeeper. Is there one for Predator/Protector? Presumably a Ford Class EMALS would be capable of the job so maybe no-one has bothered to develop a smaller lighter option yet.

December 25, 2015 3:57 am

Ok so basically Watchkeeper is to help the artillery and MLRS batteries.

Then there’s Defender, Shadow, Reaper and other ISTAR manned and unmanned aircraft for other roles. One nice ISTAR family.

December 25, 2015 1:09 pm

All these arguments against weaponising Watchkeeper sound sensible. However, aren’t they pretty much the arguments that were used when Reaper was first procured and used only as an ISTAR asset? Why wouldn’t the same progression towards an armed vehicle occur in this instance also?

Peter Elliott
December 25, 2015 1:19 pm

Becasue of the unparalled, persistant and comparitively cheap killing power of ground based Artillary. Watchkeeper is weaponised: the weapons just sit on the ground ;)

December 25, 2015 4:07 pm

The radius of operation and the 4000ft runway requirement makes me think that Watchkeeper is in a tough spot. If you have the airfield a Predator/Reaper or other large UAV would be a possibility with all it’s requisite advantages over Watchkeeper with a key one being weapons capability.

The Army would likely be better served by something along the lines of the Boeing Insitu Integrator which can be launched and recovered in the field, not to mention from ships at sea.

December 25, 2015 4:22 pm

In the 70’s and 80’s the Midge (CL89) drone was operated by 94 Locating Regt based in Celle supporting BAOR and an independent unit 22 Locating Battery based in Larkhill supporting 3 Div and the AMF. During the 80’s 94 relocated to Larkhill and absorbed 22 bty to form one very large RA Regiment. Prior to the merger 22 Bty had over 150 personnel plus REME, ROAC and Int Corps and its own RSM even though it was only a battery.
So the UK army had 4 drone troops each with 2 Midge launchers.
The rule then was that to be operated by the Artillery it had to be launched off the back of a truck, anything else that required a runway was the AAC.
With the advent of Hermes 450 and Watchkeeper and the need for runways the responsibility for operating these types of UAV’s should either be the AAC or even a joint command involving the RAF.

December 25, 2015 5:47 pm

We have three drones Reaper in 2015.

The basis of Niamey, where the drones are taking off that depart fly over the north of Mali and Niger in search of terrorists armed groups descendant of Libya, has three Reaper and two Euro-Israeli Harfang. Added to several Reaper of the US Army, which also provides us intelligence.

France, which has only two other Harfang, has made the acquisition of drones a priority to gain autonomy from its partners. In total, the military program law provides for the acquisition of twelve Reaper by 2019.

The Reaper depart for missions that can last up to 15 hours, therefore any longer than reconnaissance aircraft. They are also less rapid, 400 km/h at cruising speed for a operating range of 1850 kilometers.

In Niamey, drone crews follow the orders from Lyon (center-east of France), where the operations are directed.

A Rafale is built for performance, is a sprinter. A drone is a marathon runner. If we obtain heavier drones, we will equip maybe them with missiles.

If it is for destroy a target about the size of a car, I do not know. It is not in the habits of the French army.

Drones will penetrate the first on the theater of operation, transmit the information they collect.

In the case of Syria and Iraq the drones open the way of Rafale. Heavily armed and in charge of the attack on localized target by drones, this requires the use of cruise missiles with high capacity for destruction, that drones can not carry due to their size.

December 26, 2015 1:48 am

I just don’t understand the size of it and the need for a (even a rough) runway – it looks like at the size (deployed in a full ISO container) and range, should it not be an RAF asset ? Shouldn’t the RA have something more “tactical” ???

December 26, 2015 7:31 am

Wk is the 4th generation UAV in RA service since 1964 (MQ 57, Midge, Phoenix, Wk). The justification for the first three (at least) was to locate hostile batteries, and hence enable effective CB fire (counter-mortar was a different matter and the radars were fine). For this reason UAV control was the responsibility of the Divisional Arty Int Officer. The original reason was that the RAF was unable/unwilling to provide the necessary service. This had been the case with air recce in WW2 up to about mid 1942, but processes were sorted out, not least because the RAF recce wing (one per army) wasn’t too far away from the customers and it was possible to attach an arty int team to recce wing HQ (plus some RE surveyors to do accurate fixation).

NATO deployment introduced a heap of complexity, not least the distance from the clutch airfields to the Weserberg region, not to mention no guarantee of a timely, available service by 2 ATAF. Given the size of the Soviet artillery arm to call this a concern is a gross understatement (although modern radio link sound ranging was a help). Of course it was a bit academic until 1965ish when the 175mm M107s entered service.

The idea that UAVs were introduced as a general air recce resource is, to put it mildly, fiction. Of course no-one took too much notice until Phoenix arrived with its capability to deliver real-time imagery, then everybody started wanting it.

December 26, 2015 12:02 pm

There also has to be a bit of care and knowledge as to where the information flows and what units the UAVs are attached to. Most people have the wrong idea that UAV data goes to the man in the field. This isn’t true as the “common soldier” will probably never see the take from the higher end UAVs. They will *not* get data from Watchkeeper or Predators, those go way higher in the foodchain to a brigade or division HQ or higher for strategic planning. Depending on where the UAV is attached to and how the data flows, it looks like each individual “arm” is having their own UAV system for their own needs, Desert Hawk for the armoured/mechanized platoon level, Watchkeeper for RA batteries and Predator and HALEs for HQ level and above. Hence all the “duplicate” systems.

December 26, 2015 7:09 pm

Concerning the drones we are seriously overdue compared to the UK. On our side it is expected that the program of observation and surveillance drones Reaper will take ultimately optical or electromagnetic French or European sensors. Twelve mid-altitude drones are planned for 2019, the sale could go up to 16 drones at the term. The next generation of these drones will be prepared by privileging European cooperation.

The Neuron developed over many years by Dassault Aviation and the DGA is still far from being operational. But in the war of the future dreamed by our engineers of armament, we’ll see the Neuron drone sent as a scout to open the way for combat aircraft. They will include a mission to locate and destroy air defense systems, and thus enable to Rafale to hit strategic targets without risking the lives of their fighter pilots. It would appear that we will develop the Taranis with Neuron, I am waiting to see this.

Concerning tactical drones, probably Watchkeepers will be acquired for around fifteen units by 2019, on the thirty planned for this model.

For the moment the French doctrine always banishes the use of drones killers. Killing someone to 3 000 km poses ethical problems. France is still in agreement with the Council of Europe, which opposes targeted killings carried out by drones.

Jeremy M H
December 27, 2015 1:14 am

Objecting to targeted killings by drones is political stupidity at its best. Particularly when many nations opposed to it have arsenals that include cruise missiles with ranges of many hundreds of miles. It is an entirely artificial distinction meant to make someone feel good about something. People are just as dead if a drone drops a bomb as they are if a fighter does it.

I think the biggest obstacle to UCAV use isn’t any moralistic nonsense. If they work efficiently they will be used when the time comes. I personally don’t think they will work anytime soon to the degree they are worth the trouble.

December 27, 2015 9:59 am

I agree, a war is always dirty, during a war there are always people killed. But as long as this does not pass on TV it does not matter. During the intervention in Mali the French army killed 700 jihadists, on French television I have not seen a death, I only seen a leg that soldiers had forgotten to remove.

Rocket Banana
December 30, 2015 4:27 pm

Given the 150km radius of operation, a 150km likely sensor horizon, and the 1200m takeoff distance I don’t quite see the point. It doesn’t seem to fit any particular niche. Either you have an airstrip (in which case use Reaper) or not (in which case use a copter, or Reaper from another airfield).

What is the likelihood of a 1200m strip being knocked up JUST to launch Watchkeeper from?

December 30, 2015 8:34 pm

I thought that the take-off distance was 280 meters ? By against, I believe that it requires a arresting gear to the landing, so on a landing strip. Otherwise, in the case of France we have no choice, only alternative to Watchkeeper is Sagem’s Patroller which weighs nearly one tonne and is therefore closer to a Reaper than a tactical UAV, and then the Lancaster House Treaties commits us to cooperate, we are friends :)

The Other Chris
December 30, 2015 8:39 pm

Quite the endurance at range for the size of vehicle. Given the I-Master you could easily keep an eye on shipping in the Lebanon/Syrian coastal area from Akrotiri. Even without the auxiliary tanks.

With regards duplication: Never be afraid of having crossover and/or complementary capability.

On the topic of weaponisation, last official word (2010, standfast more recent financial underwriting of Polish/MBDA development) is that it was desirable but not essential. Given we’re more likely to see these vehicles operating in sovereign airspace assisting with flood evaluation and recovery as we are to see them tracking Russian supplies to Tartus, it’s a difficult sell with “Protector” receiving significant funding of late.

A little surprised we’ve not seen them deployed to Akrotiri to keep an eye on refugee traffic, or are the operational numbers still assisting in Afghanistan?

January 1, 2016 3:39 am

In days of yore army UAVs were tasked by setting specific questions about specific places, the flight path was planned to look and these and take the happy snaps (a tad limited with Midge which could only cope with a few direction changes per flight), after recovery the film was processed and the image analysts who were part of the Midge troop would do their stuff and report the answers. Obviously this arrangement will more or less continue but realtime imagery and flight control open things up a lot, eg allowing investigation if something looks significant as well as more speculative tasking.

Realtime imagery offers other options as well, whereas Phoenix didn’t really exploit this Watchkeeper will because the organisation includes elements that can be attached to any HQ to provide imagery to them in realtime. It may be further helped by increased trunk comms bandwidth.

Desert Hawk is deployed with a small (c.3 pers) detachment, normally a det is deployed with a Cbt Team (ie coy/sqn). This means if the coy/sqn OC wants to see the imagery he/she will be able to, I assume imagery can be recorded to some extent and I can envisage circumstances when the OC will want to show it to his O Group.

Hugh Neve
January 5, 2016 9:43 am

In the context of WK the key letter in ‘TUAS’ is the S, i.e., it is a System, not just a couple of chaps in a shed flying a small aircraft with a camera on it. The operators don’t have to be pilots.

Interesting that Queen Bee is mentioned. This, anecdotally, is the apiological origin of the word “drone” to refer to unmanned aircraft. Nothing to do with the noise they make. The BBC in particular always refer to ‘drones’ and it makes me squirm every time I hear it…

January 5, 2016 10:57 am

Seems to me the ‘problem’ with WK is that we have changed out concept of operations from ‘enduring’ to a combination of short-sharp battle winning interventions at range and contingency. Hermes 350 was designed to operate from airstrips safe inside Israel over Gaza, West Bank or near neighbours airspace. That modality worked well in Helmand where we invested in building a mighty in-theatre airbase and garrison facility at Camp Bastion, and was similarly suited to the other provinical base models (e.g. KAF and Tirin Kowt). But it might be hard pressed to support a Strike Brigade driving into Syria from Iraq, Jordan or Turkey for a quick and dirty operation to support local forces, unless a usuable airstrip can be siezed along the way (although the rough strip capability will help negate this limitation). What seems more suitable for this task is something with true STOVL capability – either rotary or VSTOL like the DARPA USN demonstrator being developed by LM. Plus, the ability to operate from amphibious vessels and carriers seems an obvious alternative to the large fixed bases that charaterised the ‘enduring mission’ model. Of course WK could probably be modified to operate from the CVs, a small catapult and the arrested system could probably be installed, but at what cost?

January 6, 2016 12:14 am

IIRC wayback (1970s?) the Swedes planned to base their fighters on straight stretches of road. This suggests that assuming ‘proper’ airfields are required for Wk may be a bit off-track. The tasks for which Wk is used will depend on the nature of the war and the supported ground commanders’ requirements and priorities. This is one of the reasons for it being Army operated and not left to the RAF!

January 18, 2016 7:15 pm

Well it would appear they’ve finally woke up to reality!

JHC additionally will look to leverage the possibilities of working more closely with unmanned air vehicles in future.

This will include exploring the potential for manned-unmanned teaming between the Apache fleet and the Thales Watchkeeper WK450 UAV operated by the army.

This will be aided by the transfer of 47 regiment Royal Artillery, the unit operating the system, into JHC.

“It makes sense to give a complex air system to an air-minded community,” Felton says.

January 21, 2016 4:17 pm

It’s not yet official, but the French press considers it acquis, it is the Sagem’s Patroller who will be our future tactical UAV.

Ray Powell
July 28, 2017 9:41 am

These are point less if they can’t do anything to help the poor squaddie on the ground with fire power!
Take a look at Benghazi a Drone was watching everything but that was it it just watched not helped!
If I’m on the ground I want firepower not pretty pictures, It’s no good supplying me with data as to where the enemy is I probably know that , want the ability to hit it , either by me or a Drone armed to the teeth giving me air support.

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