|Thales Watchkeeper drone. Photo: Tomasz Dunn. Used under Creative Commons license.|
Thales, the French aerospace company, is hoping to develop a weaponized version of the Watchkeeper drone to fulfill a plan by the Polish government to operate a fleet of armed unmanned aerial vehicles. This is despite a series of software glitches and accidents that resulted in many of the first 54 Watchkeepers that were delivered to the United Kingdom at a price tag of $1.7 billion, to be sitting idle.
In 2005, then defence secretary John Reid ordered a line of 54 Watchkeeper unarmed drones from Thales and the Israeli-based defense company Elbit Systems, in part to phase out its line of U.S. made Reaper drones. The project was projected to cost a little over $1.1 billion and be operational by 2013.
But, as the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) have reported, the fleet of surveillance drones, which the UK was hoping to use to patrol Afghanistan, Syria and northern Iraq, now mostly sits unused in hangers.
For example, a series of software malfunctions have pushed back the date at which the Watchkeeper drones can fly to 2017 at the latest. To date only 37 of the 54 drones have been delivered, and ten of these have yet to be approved for flight.
One of the reasons the Watchkeeper drones have been left in storage is they have a noted tendency to crash. In November, a Watchkeeper suffered major damage when it crashed during a routine training exercise at the Boscombe Down airbase in southern England. This marked the third such mishap in 2015.
The software glitches, accident histories, and shortage of qualified pilots have dramatically driven up the Watchkeeper budget which now stands at more than $1.7 billion.
With new sales to the UK unlikely, Thales is now hoping that Poland's desire to get into the drone business will help Watchkeeper to generate new business. "The weaponized solution for will be very much Polish-industry led," Mat Moore, head of unmamnned aerial systems for Thales in the UK, told Aviation Week. "(But) we are driven by a Polish requirement which has not been issued yet."
Despite the failure of the Watchkeeper, the Thales Group is continuing to land other lucrative contracts in the military and security sectors. For example late last month, Thales, in partnership with Airbus Space and Defense, secured a contract to build the next generation of communication satellites for the French military. This news came on the heels of a robust third quarter, in which the company’s orders for military and security products rose by a remarkable 43 percent.
In fact, Thales Alenia Space, the satellite subsidiary of the Thales Group, had its best year on record. “Thales had a very solid 2015 year in terms of bookings. We will exceed by far our budget,” CEO Jean Loic Galle told the trade publication Via Satellite. “It is the highest number in the history of Thales Alenia Space.”