UK’s first Protector RPAS takes flight

On September 25, the first Protector RG1 remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) for the Royal Air Force (RAF) took to the skies for its maiden flight in the US.

Manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI), the Protector RG1 is the RAF’s designation for the firm’s MQ-9B SkyGuardian RPAS, with the UK serving as its launch customer. This milestone follows the awarding of a £65m contract by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) to GA-ASI on July 15, 2020, for the production and delivery of the first three aircraft.

Protector RG1 [GA-ASI]
On September 25, 2020, the UK's first Protector RG1 remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) took to the skies for the first time in the US. GA-ASI 

UK Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said: “The inaugural flight of the UK’s first Protector is an exciting and welcome step in the development of our ground-breaking fleet. With increased range and endurance, greater [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR)] and weapons capacity and improved weather resilience, Protector will play a vital intelligence and deterrent role in countering future threats.”

The first aircraft, which is provisionally registered as N990DA, will be handed over to the UK MoD in the summer of 2021, after completing an initial testing phase. Prior to its formal delivery, the aircraft will support system testing as part of a combined UK MoD, US Air Force (USAF) and GA-ASI test team. Following its handover, N990DA will remain in the US to complete the RAF’s test and evaluation programme.

In total, the RAF plans to field a fleet of 16 aircraft, which will replace its current GA-ASI-produced MQ-9A Reaper force. The Protector RG1 is scheduled to enter operational service by mid-2024, with the first examples due to be delivered to the air arm in 2023. In RAF service, the RPAS will be employed by No 31 Squadron ‘Goldstars’ – a former Panavia Tornado GR4/GR4A unit – from RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.

Protector RG1 [GA-ASI]
The UK's first Protector RG1 - wearing the provisional registration N990DA - during its first flight on September 25, 2020. GA-ASI

It will be primarily used to conduct intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions in both segregated and non-segregated airspace. The integration of GA-ASI’s Detect and Avoid System (DAS) allows it to detect and evade other aircraft, enabling it to be safely operated in both contested and civilian airspace.

Gp Capt Shaun Gee, the RAF’s director of Air ISTAR programmes, said: “Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector RPAS will be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions.”

Prior to being delivered to the RAF for operational use, the Protector RG1 will need to meet both NATO’s and the UK’s safety certification standards so it can operate in civil airspace. With this capability in mind, the RPAS will be also be able to support UK civilian agencies in search and rescue and disaster response missions, if requested.

Protector RG1 [GA-ASI]
The Protector RG1 is scheduled to enter operational RAF service by mid-2024. Deliveries of the type to the service are expected to take place from 2023. GA-ASI

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 missile and Raytheon UK’s Paveway IV laser-guided bombs.