United Kingdom signs a contract to acquire 13 Protector remotely-piloted aircraft

According to information released by the British Ministry of Defense on July 22, 2021, United Kingdom has signed a contract to acquire 13 cutting-edge Protector also called MQ-9B, remotely piloted medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) aircraft from the American company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI).

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United Kingdom signs a contract to acquire 13 Protector remotely piloted aircraft 925 001 Protector remotely piloted medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) aircraft. (Picture source General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems INC)

Protector is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) that will provide critical surveillance capability for the RAF and will be equipped with a suite of surveillance equipment and precision strike weapons to deploy against potential adversaries around the globe, all while being operated from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.

16 aircraft have now been ordered from the American company General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) and are expected to enter service with the RAF by mid-2024, doubling the capability currently provided by Reaper. The investment also includes four additional ground control stations and associated support equipment.

At GKNA’s Cowes site, Minister Quin saw first-hand how the program benefits UK industry as they manufacture the V-tails for Protector and other SkyGuardian variants for customers across the world, including Belgium and Australia, following their partnership with GA-ASI.

The commitment to a 16-strong Protector fleet was outlined in the Defence Command Paper and is supported by the £24 billion uplifts to the defense budget over the next four years.

With 12 UK industry partners, the program is bringing together world-leading technology and service providers to work with GA-ASI, supporting over 200 UK jobs with £400 million being reinvested into UK industry.

Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours offers the RAF vastly improved armed ISTAR capability.

The Protector payload comprises of a complex suite of sensors, including a High-Definition Electro-Optical, Infra-Red (IR) camera, which, combined with endurance, provides a sensational persistent reconnaissance capability across the electromagnetic spectrum. Protector will be able to respond rapidly and offer commanders flexibility, allowing the aircraft to perform a plethora of strategic tasks, ranging from close air support to disaster relief, should it be requested.

The Protector will use enhanced data links and carry next-generation, low-collateral, precision-strike weapons – the UK-made Brimstone missile (MBDA) and Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb (Raytheon UK). In addition to MBDA and Raytheon, 12 other UK companies contribute towards the MQ-9B program. It has a length of 11,43 m, a wingspan of 24 m, and a maximum take-off weight of 5,669 kg.