Britain is extending its lease for Hermes 450 UAVs by another 18 months. This will cost $70 million, and includes support services. Three years ago, when Britain began leasing the Hermes 450s, they believed that their own new UAV would be ready by 2010. That deadline was not met. The original lease deal, made via Thales (a French defense firm), was for four Hermes 450s, along with contractor personnel to maintain and help operate the UAVs. This has worked out very well, as the 14 months that the Thales Hermes 450s have been in Afghanistan, they have provided about 500 UAV hours in air per month. The British have been quite pleased with this, especially since Thales is paid by the hour (a UAV is in the air). Thus the contractors have an incentive to keep them flying.
Meanwhile, four years after deciding to build their own UAVs, Britain got its Watchkeeper into the air for the first time earlier this year. Britain is introducing two new models of UAV; the Watchkeeper 180 and the Watchkeeper 450. Both UAVs are based on Israeli designs (the Hermes 180 and 450). The two Watchkeepers were supposed to be ready for service in 2005, but various problems delayed that, and now these aircraft are not expected to enter service until next year, maybe.
The Watchkeeper 450 is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It is also being equipped to carry Hellfire missiles for support of troops in Afghanistan. This UAV is already designed to carry two extra fuel tanks under its wings. Each of these fuel tanks weighs more than the 50 kg (110 pound) Hellfire missile. The Watchkeeper 450 is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) and has a 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie, and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 450 is the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
The smaller (4.5 meters/14 feet long, 6.5 meter/20 foot wingspan) Watchkeeper 180 weighs 196 kg (430 pounds), has a maximum payload of 35 kg (77 pounds) and can stay in the air for ten hours at a time. Both UAVs have day/night cameras and can supply ground troops with live video. British troops have already been using other UAVs, and are convinced of the benefits of live video in support of combat operations. Britain will pay a lot more for their 54 UAVs, over $22 million each, than equivalent American aircraft.