MoD criticised over test flights in Galilee

By Anshel Pfeffer, October 24, 2008

The UK Ministry of Defence has stirred local opposition by demanding that trials of a £317 million aircraft fleet it is buying from Israel should take place over Galilee.

The Army's new unmanned aerial vehicle system, which it is buying from an Israeli firm, must now be moved from an airfield on the Golan Heights.

Elbit Systems' Hermes 450 UAV, already in service with Israel's IDF and the US Homeland Security Department, is to be the cornerstone of the British Army's £700 million Watchkeeper programme.
In 2005, Britain signed an order to build up to 99 UAVs over eight years, with initial development of the British version to take place in Israel.

The first flight of the new Watchkeeper 450 took place in April from Megiddo airfield in the Galilee and most of the initial flight-testing has been carried out at Pik Airfield on the Golan Heights.

The next stage of trials in Israel will test the Watchkeeper's payload before flight tests move to Parc Aberporth in Wales in early 2009. This is the largest defence contract ever won by an Israeli company from the UK.

But over the past few weeks, the MoD has decided that it cannot be a partner in trials taking place in an area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

It demanded that Elbit move them and the trials will now take place at the Rosh Pina airfield in the Galilee, despite opposition by the local council and environmental groups over noise and safety concerns.

Last month, the shadow security minister Baroness Neville-Jones visited the airfield on the Golan, as part of a visit organised by the Conservative Friends of Israel.

CFI chairman Richard Harrington, who was also on the visit, said: "We were very impressed by what seemed to us an excellent example of co-operation between the Israeli defence establishment and Her Majesty's armed forces. Everything seemed to be working well and there was no indication that anyone was planning a change of venue."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: "It is the long-held position of the UK government that the Golan Heights are occupied territory.

"In this context, the Ministry of Defence would consider it inappropriate to use the facilities on the Golan Heights as part of the Watchkeeper programme."


Last updated: 1:25pm, March 31 2009