The RAF announced that it had rolled out the newly assembled Protector at Waddington – which will serve as the home-base for the UK’s 16-strong MQ-9B fleet – on October 23. Having been delivered to Waddington by an An-124-100M heavy-lift strategic transport direct from General Atomics Aeronautical Services Inc’s (GA-ASI’s) facilities in North Dakota, this initial aircraft (PR009/SM) was assembled by engineers from the No 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’ – the RAF’s first operational MQ-9B unit – sporting the type’s new squadron markings.
No 31 Squadron personnel are now preparing this initial Protector for ground and flight testing ahead of its anticipated in-service date in 2024. The new UCAV was initially supposed to enter RAF service in 2023, with the type’s Initial Operational Capability (IOC) set to be declared in 2024, but this has since been delayed to 2024 and 2025, respectively, due to delays caused by the construction of a dedicated operating campus at RAF Waddington.
According to the RAF, the first phase of Protector testing at Waddington will involve the ground testing of satellite links, as well as taxi and take-off and landing procedures, which will incorporate a circuit over the Lincolnshire base. The 15 remaining MQ-9Bs will be delivered to the UK through a phased delivery process. In RAF service, the Protector will ultimately absorb the same intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) roles currently carried out by the MQ-9A Reaper fleet. Unlike the Reaper, however, the MQ-9B will also be certified to stringent NATO standards to enable it to operate in both UK and European civilian airspace.