The British Army's Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's) has received a Statement of Type Design Assurance (STDA) from the UK Military Aviation Authority (MAA), it was announced on 7 October.
While falling short of a full Release to Service (RTS), the announcement is welcome news for the delayed programme - originally intended to enter service in 2010.
According to Thales, the STDA "provides assurance that the Watchkeeper air vehicle and software has reached an acceptable level for design safety and integrity to meet the current stage of the system's development." While the STDA is a step in the right direction, Watchkeeper will not be authorised to fly in the military environment until it gains RTS status.
Speaking to IHS Jane's , a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson stated: "The release-to-service process, including airworthiness certification, is taking longer than originally expected and there is currently no set date for approval. The MoD and Thales UK are working closely together to expedite the process. As the first large unmanned air system to fly in UK airspace, Watchkeeper is breaking new ground and it is essential that the process is thorough."
The UK originally signed the production contract for Watchkeeper in 2005, then valued at GBP700 million (USD1.1 billion). According to the MoD, total spending on Watchkeeper has been about GBP831 million as of the end of the 2012/13 financial year.
The Thales-led Watchkeeper programme is intended to provide an all-weather tactical Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) UAV for the British Army, utilising a modified Elbit Hermes 450 airframe. To make up for a lack of UK ISTAR capability in Afghanistan, the UK purchased Hermes 450 UAVs as an urgent operational requirement (UOR) in 2007 for USD110 million. With Watchkeeper entry into service heavily delayed, the Hermes 450 UOR has been extended - at a total programme cost of GBP214 million.
There remains considerable doubt over whether Watchkeeper will be deployed to Afghanistan in time for the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission at the end of 2014 given the delays to the programme. The MoD stated to IHS Jane's that "although the MoD remains committed to deploying it to Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity, Watchkeeper was not procured as an urgent operational requirement for Afghanistan."