We 'could' send troubled Watchkeeper drones to war, insists UK minister

And I 'could' sing a duet with Taylor Swift

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Comment The British Army's troubled Watchkeeper drones "could still be deployed on operations", a defence minister has insisted.

Labour MP Kevan Jones, a member of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, asked the Ministry of Defence "what assessed capability gaps have been created as a result of the Army's Watchkeeper programme failing to achieve its Full Operating Capability 1 milestone?" following coverage by The Register and other news outlets of the drone missing a key certification.

The Thales-built Watchkeeper is supposed to be a battlefield drone used for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, or ISTAR in the military lexicon. Instead the project has been delayed by years, is £400m over its initial planned budget of £800m and still hasn't done any actual operational (warzone) flying, other than a token deployment for a few days in Afghanistan in the early part of this decade.

Among other problems, four of the remotely piloted aerial vehicles have crashed in the past few years, including one that was directly traced by an internal MoD inquiry to "flawed Vehicle Management System Computer software logic".

Responding to Jones's Parliamentary question, defence procurement minister Guto Bebb said: "Watchkeeper could still be deployed on operations should the operational imperative warrant it. As such, no capability gaps have been created as a result of the Army's Watchkeeper programme failing to achieve its Full Operating Capability 1 milestone."

This is the Parliamentary equivalent of Monty Python's Black Knight proclaiming "'Tis but a scratch!"

According to other responses from Bebb to related questions asked by Jones: "The Equipment Standard 2 modification, which is currently being released, will update this [VMSC software flaw]. However, procedural mitigations have already been put in place to reduce the likelihood of re-occurrence."

The Watchkeeper fleet was initially supposed to be ready for operational tasks by April 2013. After missing its full operating capability date early this year, this will mark the fifth year of delays to the programme.

Jones also asked other questions of the MoD, which confirmed that only four Watchkeepers have crashed – though the ministry's confirmation does leave a question hanging over five "missing" aircraft. The MoD ordered 54 Watchkeepers, of which 45 have been delivered. Four have crashed, as the minister told Parliament.

The formal Service Inquiries into last year's two Watchkeeper crashes are ongoing. ®


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