The Royal Air Force currently operate ten MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) aircraft which are designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), and attack missions. These aircraft are operated by 39 Sqn RAF and 13 Sqn RAF, from Creech AFB, USA and RAF Waddington in the UK.
It was announced in July 2020 that the MQ-9A Reaper would be replaced by an initial sixteen MQ-9B Protector remotely piloted aircraft which is to start entering service by mid-2024 after a successful development phase and be operated by 31 Squadron (a former Tornado GR4 Squadron) at RAF Waddington. 39 Sqn and 13 Sqn will later convert from Reaper to Protector squadrons.
The UK has ordered the first three Protector RG Mk 1 systems (three aircraft, three ground control stations and supporting equipment) as the first phase of the acquisition, with the additional 13 aircraft, four ground control stations and support equipment expected later.
The Protector has a maximum operating altitude of 45,000ft (compared with 50,000ft for the Reaper), a maximum endurance of more than 40 hours (compared with 27 hours for the Reaper), a maximum air speed of 200kt (compared with 240kt for the Reaper) and can operate in busy unsegregated civilian airspace. It also has nine external stories stations, compared with five for the Reaper.
Equipment for Predator includes multispectral targeting systems and AN/APY-8 Lynx IIe Block 20A synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicators (SAR/GMTI), as well as enhanced datalinks. Munitions comprise MBDA Brimstone 3 missiles and Raytheon Paveway IV laser-guided bombs.
Protector is the world's first certified Remotely Piloted Air System, which enables it to fly in busy, unsegregated airspace, including civilian airspace, thanks to its ground-breaking 'sense and avoid' technology. This will permit Protector to fly in all UK airspace safely and is certified against stringent NATO and UK Safety Certification standards equivalent to manned aircraft. The Royal Air Force is to fully integrate Protector operations into RAF Waddington where it will operate alongside the based fixed wing aircraft.
SkyGuardian RPA to operate from RAF Waddington & RAF Lossiemouth from August 2021
It was announced in February 2021 that a SkyGuardian aircraft (N190TC), a pre-production example of the new Protector Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, will arrive and then operate from RAF Waddington in July 2021 (It will now be August 2021)
This aircraft will assist in the development of the revolutionary 'Detect and Avoid' technology which will permit Protector to fly in all UK airspace safely. It will also allow the Royal Air Force to refine the requirements needed to fully integrate Protector operations into RAF Waddington.
It will be operated by the manufacturer, 'General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems' and will participate in exercise 'Joint Warrior', a multi-national large-scale military exercise in addition to undertaking a series of capability demonstrations to partners and allies.
The CAA has approved SkyGuardian operating from RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth this summer (2021).
The first activity is expected to commence 20th August 2021 at RAF Waddington and then from RAF Lossiemouth around 10th September 2021 until the middle of October.
• NATS (AIC):
During the period between 20 August 2021 and 15 October 2021, a General Atomics built SkyGuardian Remotely Pilot Aircraft
System (RPAS), registered N190TC, will conduct an extensive flying program in the United Kingdom. The RPAS will be based out
of RAF Waddington, England and RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland (for Exercise Joint Warrior) during the dates above.
• See press Release.
SkyGuardian N190TC (Waddington) on ADS-B Exchange Tracker - Wed 25th August 2021:
SkyGuardian N190TC (Lossiemouth) on ADS-B Exchange Tracker - Tue 14th August 2021:
On 2nd September 2021, the SkyGuardian flew from RAF Waddington to Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands (Area Delta 2 (Grey)) to display its maritime surveillance capabilities during a two-day series of flights. The Royal Netherlands Air Force has ordered four MQ-9A remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) with the first expected to be delivered later in the year.
The SkyGuardian RPA is expected to take part in the UK-led Joint Warrior exercise this Autumn and will be integrated with other land, sea & air platforms.
• Naval News.
First Protector RG Mk1 aircraft accepted off-contract (October 2022)
Ownership of the first Protector aircraft has now transferred to UK MOD and the aircraft will now fly with a UK Military tail number, PR005, under a UK Military Permit to Fly.
The aircraft remains in the USA to participate in the initial training programme for the RAF, with the first delivery of Protector to the RAF in the UK planned for 2023.
To achieve full operational clearance, Protector is being assessed against stringent NATO and UK safety certification standards, meaning it could operate in civilian airspace. It is expected that Protector will achieve certification in 2024.
Protector will replace Reaper and 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. It would also be available, if requested, to support civilian agencies in the UK, for example in search and rescue and disaster response missions.
• RAF News (6.10.22).
First RAF Protector arrives at RAF Waddington (September 2023)
The first of sixteen RAF Protectors arrived at RAF Waddington, from Southern California, via an Antonov An-124 Transport aircraft, at the end of September 2023.
31 Squadron have assembled the aircraft and are preparing it for ground and air testing ahead of its anticipated In-Service date later in 2024.
The first phase of Protector testing at RAF Waddington will involve ground testing of the satellite links and taxi procedures as well as take-off and landing procedures which will incorporate a circuit above RAF Waddington.
The ISR Capability Team will be working with 56 Squadron, the test and evaluation experts, will put the aircraft through its paces to ensure it is ready for operational service next year, whilst the newly reformed 31 Squadron will focus on preparing to operate the aircraft in service.
More details here.
RAF's Protector flies in the UK for the first time (17 Nov 2023)
The Royal Air Force's newest aircraft has taken its first flight in the UK.
The Protector RG Mk1 is undergoing a series of rigorous trials and tests before entering the RAF fleet. The aircraft flew a series of circuits around RAF Waddington airfield, at all times under the control of a pilot through its ground-based advanced cockpit.
Arrival into the UK of 15 further aircraft from General Atomics in the US, will be a phased delivery over the coming years. All aircraft are expected to be delivered and in-service by July 2025.
More details here.