UK orders first three Protectors

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) has been contracted by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to build its first three Protector RG1 unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) for the Royal Air Force.

The deal – worth £65m – was announced by UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace at the virtual Air and Space Power Conference 2020 on July 15. It comes after GA-ASI successfully completed the development phase of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian – which will be designated the Protector RG1 in RAF service.

Protector RG1 [RAF]
Concept art showing the Protector RG1 in flight, wearing its operational RAF colours. Royal Air Force

The contract includes the first batch of aircraft and three ground control stations, along with associated support equipment. It also features an exercisable option for the production of 13 more Protector RG1s and four ground control stations. This will complete the RAF’s planned acquisition of 16 aircraft, which will effectively double its unmanned strike capability – a mission which is currently covered by seven MQ-9A Reaper from Creech Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada.

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: “The UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology. Protector will provide the RAF with vast global reach, meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come, and provides another increase to the unmanned inventory for the armed forces.”

Protector is scheduled to enter service with the RAF by mid-2024, with the UK acting as the launch customer for the type. The platform will be operated by No 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’ – a former Panavia Tornado GR4/4A unit – from RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, and will replace the air arm’s current Reaper force.

MQ-9B SkyGuardian [Khalem Chapman]
MQ-9B SkyGuardian, serial N190TC - a development test aircraft for Protector - made history in July 2018, when it landed at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, after successfully completing the world's first transatlantic crossing by an UAS. Khalem Chapman

“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,” the Defence Secretary added.

Once operational, the Protector RG1 will provide the UK with new, unique capabilities. The platform will be used to conduct intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions in both segregated and non-segregated airspace. The integration of a GA-ASI-developed Detect and Avoid System (DAS) allows the aircraft to detect and evade other aircraft, which enables it to operate safely in both contested and civil airspace.

The platform has an endurance of up to 40 hours and features advanced anti-icing and lightning protection systems. In terms of munitions, the Protector RG1 can be equipped with MBDA’s Brimstone fire-and-forget air-to-surface missiles and Raytheon UK’s Paveway IV laser-guided bombs.