The British Army will be ready to start using its first Watchkeeper tactical unmanned air vehicles in Afghanistan this December, following the completion of operational field trials that will commence in October.
Maj Matt Moore, from the army's headquarters directorate, Royal Artillery, said one operational "task line" will be established in Afghanistan this year, with two more to follow by April next year and another three by October 2012.
Using WK450 air vehicles and related ground equipment, the Watchkeeper system will replace Elbit Systems Hermes 450s made available to the army since 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fielded under an urgent operational requirement deal with Thales UK, a current five task lines provide a combined 70h of full-motion video per day in support of ground operations. The interim service has so far logged more than 48,000h and provides "a battle-winning capability", said Moore.
The UK Ministry of Defence earlier this month expressed concern over the Watchkeeper programme, which is now due to deliver operational equipment around 10 months late. The delay has been attributed to earlier software issues and the need to meet some requirements that Moore said have evolved as a result of lessons learned in Afghanistan.
WK450 UAVs have now flown more than 230 flights totalling around 320h, said Nick Miller, Thales's business director for ISTAR and UAV systems. "Watchkeeper has broken some serious ground from a flight test and certification point of view," he said.
The first army personnel to use the Watchkeeper system began their training last month, and user acceptance work will be performed in October and November from the ParcAberporth UAV centre in west Wales.