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Inside UK £1.4bn spy drone 'disaster' as bulky aircraft struggle in bad weather

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BRITAIN’S army of spy drones has been labelled an “unmitigated disaster” as the devices are too heavy and struggle in bad weather.

The Ministry of Defence stumped up £1.4 billion of taxpayers’ money on 54 Watchkeeper WK450s drones to be used by the UK’s armed forces.

A Thales UK Watchkeeper drone on display at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough

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A Thales UK Watchkeeper drone on display at the Farnborough International Airshow in FarnboroughCredit: Getty
The drone has been slammed for being too bulky and old-fashioned

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The drone has been slammed for being too bulky and old-fashionedCredit: Getty
The Watchkeeper drone surveys the English Channel

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The Watchkeeper drone surveys the English ChannelCredit: Getty
The Watchkeeper was based on the Israeli Elbit Hermes 450

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The Watchkeeper was based on the Israeli Elbit Hermes 450Credit: AFP

However, multiple crashes are being blamed on endless add-ons – including 265 user requirements and 1,910 system modifications.

They are also restricted to certain weather conditions. Eight have been written off at a cost of £40million.

Tory MP and former Armed Forces Minister Mark Francois said the drones – which cost £5 million each – are already “obsolete”.

Mr Francois is leading a Commons Defence Committee investigation into the issue and said the scheme has been an “unmitigated disaster, arriving years late and effectively already obsolescent”.

The Watchkeeper drones are based on Israel’s Hermes 450 drone, nicknamed the ‘Zik’, understood to be being used over Gaza and in Lebanon.

Watchkeeper drone

The Thales Watchkeeper WK450 drones are used by the British Army for surveillance and target acquisition, as well as reconnaissance.

The unnamed aerial vehicles were provided in an £800 million contract with UAV Tactical Systems, a joint venture of Israeli company Elbit and British-based Thales UK – winning the tender in 2004.

The Watchkeeper is based on Elbit’s Hermes 450.

Its first flight in the UK took place in 2010 with 54 drones put on order, but continual delays have followed due to struggles to reach full operational capability.

In June 2023, Defence minister James Cartlidge said the program had cost £1.35 billion to date, including necessary airfield upgrades at Aberporth and Boscombe Down.

By last year, one in seven Watchkeepers had been lost.

Critics claim the cheaper, smaller and more modern UAVs would be a better alternative.

The pilotless drone has been called the “best drone in the world” by retired Army major Chris Lincoln-Jones – who was asked to analyse it as part of the development of the Watchkeeper.

The Hermes 450 can spy on targets for up to 17 hours at an altitude of 18,000 ft.

The British alternative is not thought to be used in deployments but rather training exercises.

Ministers have called on the MoD to rethink its protocols and use cheaper, less complex equipment.

A Telegraph investigation last year quoted an army source which said the Watchkeepers were for “visual meteorological conditions only”.

They were originally due to enter service in 2010 but this was delayed until 2018.

An MoD spokesperson told The Sun: “Built in the UK, Watchkeeper is a powerful Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform and since 2010 it has accumulated over 4,000 hours of flying, providing vital situational awareness for soldiers on the ground.

“It has been successfully deployed across the world, including Afghanistan, where it played a crucial protective role for British troops.”

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