PARIS --- Despite a three-month slippage of its Initial Operating Capability 2 milestone, previously scheduled for April, the British Army’s Watchkeeper UAV is still expected to reach Full Operating Capability by the target date of April 2017.
Answering a written Parliamentary question on June 28, British Minister of State for Defence Earl Howe said that “the Watchkeeper programme will declare Initial Operating Capability 2 standard by July 2016,” instead of April as previously scheduled.
“An initial set of release to service recommendations for the Watchkeeper system at Equipment Standard 2 should be provided by March 2017,” he said in his written answer to Lord Moonie, adding that “This will provide sufficient clearance for the Army to fly the Watchkeeper system in that configuration, and support delivery of Full Operating Capability by the target date of April 2017.”
Watchkeeper, developed for the British Army by Thales and Israel’s Elbit Systems, has had its share of technical hitches, but now appears to be back on track. As of late June, it had logged over 2,000 flight hours and 1,000 sorties, a Thales spokeswoman said June 30, including both flight trials activity and Army flying.
Regarding the Watchkeeper £80 million support contract awarded June 29, she said it is “a flexible support contract providing a range of services to the Army including spares, repair activity, integrated logistics, engineering, deep storage maintenance and training support for Watchkeeper,” and has a duration of 38 months.
As those services “are sized to meet an indicative level of Army flying training [and] also sustain the readiness of the Army to meet potential operational commitments, the indicative flying hour profile within this contract is less relevant” than with standard availability-based contracts.
A joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian revealed that, “despite taking delivery of dozens of Watchkeeper, the British Army only had 6 trained pilots for the 33 Watchkeeper aircraft delivered by the autumn of 2015,” British Forces TV reported Oct. 6, 2015, adding that “most are now boxed up, sitting in storage.”
The pilot shortage is one reason why, since January 2014, Watchkeeper has only logged 400 sorties and 1,000 flight hours, after a still-unexplained suspension of flight activity between September 2013 and January 2014.
The Guardian story added that, “despite the gloomy statistics, the forecast is more promising. The Army is set to begin the first operational conversion courses to train Watchkeeper pilots later this year, with 24 pilots due to complete it in two years' time, rising to 100 pilots before the project’s Full Operational Capability deadline arrives in 2017,” which is the date confirmed by Lord Howe.