Army commissioned painting of drones monitoring migrant boats in English Channel

The artwork shows two Watchkeepers flying over dinghies approaching white cliffs, and its caption tells of ‘illegal people-trafficking’.

31 March 2022

The British Army commissioned a painting depicting two of its drones surrounding dinghies approaching England’s coastline, amid what the caption describes as “illegal people-trafficking”.

Painted by renowned aviation artist Nicolas Trudgian, it shows two Watchkeeper drones airborne, alongside a coastguard helicopter and plane, and a Border Force vessel as two dinghies approach a beach near white cliffs.

The caption of the piece says it depicts “Operation Deveran”, going on to read: “A 47th Regiment Royal Artillery Watchkeeper provides overwatch for UK Border Force interdiction of illegal people-trafficking across the English Channel.”

A British Army spokesperson said the piece was commissioned by the commanding officer of 47th Regiment Royal Artillery, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Britton, and the PA news agency understands it was painted to mark him leaving the regiment.

The painting shows two drones in the sky above dinghies in the water below (Nicolas Trudgian/PA)

Lt Col Britton shared the painting on his Linkedin profile, saying: “After an incredible 2.5yrs I’ve handed over command.

“Endorsed by the Integrated Review, Watchkeeper continues to be a critical element of Defence’s order of battle. I am proud that we managed to prove its utility over the past two years, be that in Cyprus, over the English Channel, or at Keevil Airfield, where we made huge strides integrating the capability into the Field Army and other agencies, as we did with the UK Border Force.

“It was therefore an honour to host a parade to recognise our deployment to Kent in Summer 2020 as one of my final acts, where the Master Gunner St James’ Park unveiled a painting celebrating our success.”

As of April 2021, the British Army had 46 Watchkeeper aircraft in its fleet, of which 11 were in service.

Five of the drones have crashed in recent years, including two which plunged into the sea off the coast of Wales in early 2017 and one which crashed in June 2018.

The drone was deployed to counter migrant crossings in the English Channel in August 2020, with the Ministry of Defence saying at the time that it would provide “surveillance and reconnaissance capability, feeding information back to the Border Force and allowing them to take appropriate action where necessary”.

The drone’s involvement continued until October 2020, according to a report released earlier this month by the Defence Committee.

Providing evidence to the committee, campaign group Drone Wars UK said the Watchkeeper flew 21 sorties during the period.

The group added: “Watchkeeper’s contribution to operations in the Channel was minimal.”

The Watchkeeper drone has a wingspan of almost 11 metres and is remotely piloted by the British Army (Crown copyright/PA)

With a wingspan of almost 11 metres, it can be remotely piloted at an altitude of 16,000ft for up to 14 hours, according to the British Army.

The Watchkeeper programme has cost more than £1.1 billion, defence minister Jeremy Quin said in November 2021, against an original estimate of £847 million in 2005.

The painting has drawn some criticism online, including from Ian Kikuchi, a senior curator and historian at the Imperial War Museums. He described it as showing an “army artillery drone watching seasick men, women and children struggling ashore”.

He added on Twitter: “Part of me even wonders whether the fact that the boats in this image are so tiny reflects a smidgeon of embarrassment that Britain in 2022 feels the need to use army weapons systems to ‘overwatch’ the ‘interdiction’ of a few rubber dinghies.”

A British Army spokesperson said: “The commanding officer of 47 Regiment Royal Artillery commissioned a painting to signify the regiment’s support to the UK Home Office and collaboration with the HM Coast Guard during Operation Deveran in 2020.”

Trudgian declined to comment.

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