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.
New Protector aircraft example to operate from RAF Waddington in July 2021
It was announced in February 2021 that a SkyGuardian aircraft, a pre-production example of the new Protector Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, will arrive and then operate from RAF Waddington in July 2021 (It may now be in 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).
Operations are due to commence 19th August 2021. Operations will take place from RAF Waddington during August and mid-September where the aircraft will relocate to RAF Lossiemouth for further flights.
• See press Release.