The British Army's notorious Thales Watchkeeper drones have cost the taxpayer a billion pounds over the past 12 years.
The unmanned surveillance aircraft, operated by 47 Regiment, Royal Artillery, from West Wales Airport in Aberporth, have been struck by a series of faults, flaws and crew cockups resulting in a number of crashes over the past few years.
Figures revealing the £1.08bn total cost of Watchkeeper between 2005 and the present day were unveiled in a series of Parliamentary answers given to SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes.
The level of public spending on Watchkeepers in the last year alone is enough to put three frontline Type 23 frigates to sea for a year, or one of the Albion-class amphibious warfare ships that defence ministers are thinking of cutting to save costs. The money could even be spent on keeping the Navy's existing four River-class patrol vessels at sea for another year.
Additionally, of the 2,859 air hours clocked up by all of the Army's 45 Watchkeepers since 2005, just 146 hours were spent on operations, defence equipment minister Harriett Baldwin told Docherty-Hughes.
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Those operational flying hours were run up by three of the "intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition" (ISTAR) Watchkeeper drones in Afghanistan in late 2014, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism previously found – the one and only combat deployment ever made by Watchkeepers. The bureau revealed that each drone flew for just two days (roughly 16 flying hours per day) at the end of Operation Herrick, the UK's commitment to the Afghanistan war.
On average, each of the UK's Watchkeepers has flown for 63 hours, or just under four days at 16 flying hours per day. Each aircraft has done less flying, on average, than virtually every other aircraft of a similar age in the MoD inventory.
Docherty-Hughes told The Register: "I was in the Defence Select Committee last month when we heard that the F-35 was the most expensive aircraft in history: it would seem from these answers that Watchkeeper might have beaten even that per hour flown."
Four Watchkeepers have crashed in the last few years. In the most recent prangs, two drones were written off after they mysteriously flopped into the sea near their Aberporth base. Unusually, the MoD did not say anything publicly about the crashes until an admiral accidentally revealed them at a defence trade show more than six months later. The MoD says it has 45 Watchkeepers on charge at the moment, though 54 were originally ordered and at least four are known to have crashed so far.
Baldwin's full answer on the annual cost of the Watchkeepers broke it down by year, showing that public money spent on operating the drones had fallen since 2010. Between financial year 2011-12 and 2012-13 the cost halved from £112m to £65m; in 2016-17 the annual cost of the Watchkeeper programme had fallen to £39m per year.
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This is explained by the total cost of the Watchkeeper programme including building works at airfields, fitting the drones with autonomous landing systems, and the purchase of ground-based simulators for crew training. The first Watchkeeper flew in April 2010 at West Wales Airport, at which point the vast majority of ground works had been completed.
However, the Watchkeeper programme is over budget. Then-defence secretary John Reid told Parliament in 2005 that planned spending on the whole project was just £800m. The aircraft are built by French-headquartered defence multinational Thales and maintained by a joint venture with Israel's Elbit Systems, which designed the original Hermes 450 drone that the Watchkeeper was based on. That Leicester-based joint venture is called UAS Tactical Systems Ltd (U-TacS).
The MoD previously told The Register that it has received 45 of the 54 drones originally ordered. It did not answer our question on when deliveries would be completed, though four of the 54 aircraft have since crashed while in use.
An MoD spokesman told The Register that the "current approved cost of the programme to full operating capability is £927m" excluding support costs, which are included in the £1bn price tag given by defence minister Baldwin. The ministry "refuses to reveal the breakdown of fleet usage"; that is, how many Watchkeepers are available to fly and how many are stored in long-term reserve, something it does reveal for manned Royal Air Force aircraft.
The spokesman added: “Watchkeeper was introduced into service in 2014 and deployed to Afghanistan. The programme is working towards achieving full operating capability later this year, requiring the training of additional service personnel and an uplift of the system to the final equipment build standard. Utilising its airborne imagery and radar surveillance capabilities, it offers significant benefits to Defence across a wide range of scenarios.
"Watchkeeper is also unique and a first-of-a-kind, as it remains the only UAS of its type to achieve certification to fly in the UK (in segregated airspace) and to have successfully conducted a test flight in civilian-controlled non-segregated UK airspace.” ®