Next-gen Protector drones to join RAF fleet in £65-million contract
The UK Ministry of Defence is purchasing a total of 16 Protector RG Mk1 Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) to replace the RAF's Reaper RPAS drone fleet. At the virtual 2020 Air and Space Power Conference, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced the £65-million (US$82.3-million) contract for the American-built next-generation unmanned warplanes.
Currently, the core of the RAF's drone fleet is its 10 MQ-9 Reaper, which is a remotely piloted medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) aircraft operated by the 13 and 39 Squadrons based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. Designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), and attack missions, the Reapers have taken part in many British military operations, but they are now regarded as obsolete.
To replace the Reapers, the MoD contracted General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) to develop a replacement based on the company's MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which has been reconfigured to meet RAF specifications.
This includes X-band satellite communications (SATCOM), and detect-and-avoid avionics that meet stringent NATO and UK safety certification standards that allow it to be the first certified RPAS to operate in busy, unsegregated, civilian airspaces. The Protector can also self-deploy by using SATCOM-enabled Automatic Takeoff and Landing,
With a flight endurance of up to 40 hours, the Protector includes advanced anti-icing and lightning protection for operations in extreme weather. In addition, it will be armed with next-generation, low collateral, precision strike weapons, including the British-built Brimstone missile from MBDA and the Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb from Raytheon UK.
The new contract is for an initial tranche of three Protectors, with the first remaining in the United States for test and evaluation, followed by 13 additional airframes, and the option for 13 more, as well as four ground-control stations and support equipment. The first Protector is scheduled for delivery in 2021 and the aircraft are set to enter service by 2024.
"Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability," says Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes. "Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector RPAS will also be able to support multiple civilian missions, including search and rescue and disaster response missions."