UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced on July 15 that an order had been placed for three General Atomics Protector RG.Mk 1 vehicles for the RAF’s remotely-piloted aircraft system (RPAS) force. The initial contract is worth £65 million ($81.6 million) and includes three ground control stations. The deal includes an option for a further 13 Protector air vehicles to meet the RAF’s planned total requirement for 16.
“Protector will provide the RAF with vast global reach, meeting the UK’s defense and security needs for decades to come, and provides another increase to the unmanned inventory for the armed forces,” said Wallace. “This aircraft will upgrade a whole range of lethal capabilities allowing us to control, protect, and manage the battlespace from the air for hours on end.”
Plans call for Protector to enter service in mid-2024, based at the RAF’s ISTAR (Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) hub at Waddington. With 16 aircraft in service, that will more than double the RPAS capability offered by the current General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper fleet. Protector is a development of the Reaper, offering a 40-hour endurance. Crucially, it is the world’s first certified RPAS, enabling it to fly in unsegregated airspace due to its “sense-and-avoid” capability, in turn permitting its use in civilian airspace for missions such as search and rescue and disaster response. Protector also has anti-icing and lightning protection, allowing it to operate in extreme weather conditions. Planned weaponry includes the MBDA Brimstone missile and Raytheon UK Paveway IV laser-guided bomb.
Protector operators will take advantage of a new training initiative announced on July 1 for the current Reaper fleet. Initial training will now happen at the General Atomics test and training center at Grand Forks in North Dakota, where students will receive ground and basic aircraft operation instruction. Meanwhile, prospective Reaper operators will continue to undergo training at the CAE-operated U.S. Air Force training establishment at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.
After the initial training phase, operators join the RAF’s No. 39 Squadron at Creech AFB, Nevada, which absorbed the RAF-specific training task from No. 54 Squadron’s Reaper Training Flight. Once the Grand Forks activity is fully operating, the RAF will have complete control of its training syllabus, negating the need for a conversion course that teaches UK-specific tactics, techniques, and procedures.