A report published by the Jane’s Information Group said that the Army is looking at integrating the Watchkeeper program in to Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) as a way of smoothing the troubled Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s (UAV) entry in to service. The Army’s fleet of 32 Watchkeeper drones could operate under JHC as early as August of this year. Although they will be operated under a new command the aircraft will still be operated by 32 and 47 Regiments of the Royal Artillery based at Larkhill.
JHC is a tri-service organisation which consolidates the UK’s battlefield military helicopters in to a single, harmonious force. It is currently based in Andover.
The plans do not include the British Army’s smaller tactical UAVs however such as the Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk Mk. 3 and Prox Dynamics Black Hornet both of which will remain under the command of 1 Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade (1 ISR Bde) headquartered at Upavon, Wiltshire.
The Watchkeeper WK450 is built in the UK by UAV Tactical Systems (U-TacS); a joint effort between the Israeli company Elbit Systems and the Thales group. It is a long-endurance UAV tailored for the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) role and based on the Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 UAV.
The program has been marred by repeated development delays exacerbated by organisational problems which meant that despite over 30 aircraft being delivered by December 2015 there were just 4 military pilots cleared to operate it. The program was also the target of a number of protests in the UK at Elbit’s facilities by groups opposed to Israeli actions against Palestinians. The change of command is hoped to help shake off its troubled past. It has already served nominally but quite successfully in Afghanistan.