Warplanes: Watchkeeper Sends Reaper To The RAF

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October 22, 2014: Britain finally g0t its own locally made large UAVs operational in late 2013 and since August some have been seen in Afghanistan. This has been a long time coming because it was back in 2006 that the British began developing the Watchkeeper UAV and by 2010 got one airborne for the first time. The Watchkeeper 180 and the Watchkeeper 450 are both are based on Israeli designs (the Hermes 180 and 450). The two Watchkeepers were supposed to be ready for service in 2010, but various problems delayed that until the end of 2013. France has taken an interest in Watchkeeper because it has also been seeking a UAV of that size and capability and may become the first export customer.

The Watchkeeper 450 is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles for support of troops in Afghanistan. This UAV is already designed to carry two extra fuel tanks under its wings as well as a radar in addition to the usual day/night vidcams. Each of these radar pods or fuel tanks weighs more than the 50 kg (110 pound) Hellfire missile. The Watchkeeper 450 is 6.5 meters (20 feet) long and has an 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 and even more during the 2008 and 2014 operations in Gaza. Britain has also been using leased Hermes 450s in Afghanistan and some are still there, along with their new cousins, the Watchkeeper 450.

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.

Because of the Watchkeeper delays in 2010, Britain extended its lease for Hermes 450 UAVs by another 18 months. This cost $70 million and included support services. Britain began leasing the Hermes 450s in 2007 because they believed that Watchkeeper would be ready by 2010. The original lease deal, made via Thales (a French defense firm), included four Hermes 450s, along with contractor personnel to maintain and help operate the UAVs. This worked out very well and the British were quite pleased with the lease deal, especially since Thales is paid by the hour (a UAV is in the air). Thus the contractors have an incentive to keep them flying.

The leased Hermes 450s were not sufficient to meet the demands from troops, who were envious of the American Predator and Reaper UAVs. So Britain bought Reapers in 2007, via an "under urgent operational requirement" deal, to support British troops in Afghanistan. The British were very pleased with the performance of their Reapers. British operators were sent to the U.S. Air Force to work alongside U.S. Reaper operators and were able to quickly absorb the U.S. experience with these UAVs. In 2010, Britain decided to increase its force of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to about 25 aircraft. Currently Britain has nine reapers (one crashed) and deliveries continue. The first British Reaper entered service in Afghanistan in 2007 and they were armed 2008. As the Watchkeepers ever enter service the Reaper purchases will be reduced. If Watchkeeper proves to be a complete bust then Reaper will continue to be the main British large UAV.

The MQ-9 Reaper is a 4.7 ton, 11.6 meters (36 foot) long aircraft with a 21.3 meters (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry 682 kg (1,500 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500 pound) smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in many situations. Thus after their use in Afghanistan the RAF (Royal Air Force) will take control of the British Reapers and several of these are now being used against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The army retains Watchkeeper and Hermes UAVs.

 


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