PODCAST: How Scavenger drone became Protector – and why Watchkeeper ‘not value for money’

Image shows a 4 man team from 43 Battery, 47 Regiment, Royal Artillery, led by Corporal Si Downey assembling a Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, 23rd September 2014. The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Army’s next generation of Unmanned Air System (UAS), Watchkeeper, is now fully operational in Afghanistan. This new capability is providing force protection for British troops as they prepare to draw down from Afghanistan by the end of this year. Footage released today shows Watchkeeper carrying out surveillance tasks and gaining situational awareness via its cutting edge cameras and radar capability, a new asset for the UK’s Armed Forces. Credit should read: Cpl Mark Larner RY

Picture: MoD/Cpl Mark Larner

In this week’s Drone News, Jack Serle and the Guardian’s Alice Ross discuss the Bureau’s investigation into Watchkeeper, the British Army’s “affordable” £1.2bn drone, which was published with the Guardian earlier this month.

The podcast also discusses David Cameron’s announcement this month that the Ministry of Defence plans to double the size of the RAF’s drone fleet by buying 20 ‘Protectors’. These are intended to replace the force’s current fleet of  of 10 armed Reaper drones. In fact, Protector is actually a re-named, more advanced version of the Reaper. It is the result of a five year MoD programme called Scavenger that has been trying to decide how to replace Reaper when it is retired in 2018.

Meanwhile, Watchkeeper is an unarmed surveillance drone whose life began in 2005 when ministers announced a cost of around £800m. The Bureau discovered it is now expected to cost £1.2bn by 2017 when it is earmarked to be fully operational – four years later than initially planned. It has flown just 146 hours in service – in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

The MoD has taken delivery of 33 Watchkeeper drones but most are in storage.

“At the moment it’s not looking like amazing value for money,” said Ross. “Obviously that could all change but at the moment they’ve spent quite a lot of money developing a drone that is now sitting in boxes.”

Listen to the full podcast, hosted by Owen Bennett-Jones, here.

Follow Jack Serle, Owen Bennett-Jones and Alice Ross on Twitter.

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