General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) has signed a contract with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the manufacture and delivery of Protector RG Mk1 Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS).
The contract covers a total of 16 aircraft (initial £65 million order of three platforms with an option for an additional 13) and seven Ground Control Stations (GCS), together with associated ground support equipment.
The contract was announced by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace at the virtual 2020 Air and Space Power Conference. He 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. 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.”
“This is a major milestone for the MQ-9B system and the Protector Program,” said Linden Blue, CEO, GA-ASI. “We look forward to delivering this new generation of MQ-9 to the Royal Air Force (RAF).”
GA-ASI’s MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the baseline system that will become the Protector RG Mk1 when configured for the RAF. This configuration includes X-band satellite communications (SATCOM) and UK weapon systems.
The first system will be delivered in 2021, though it will remain in the U.S. to be utilized in the test and evaluation program. After a successful development phase Protector is set to enter service by mid-2024, meaning that the Remotely Piloted Air System (RPAS) will deliver a step-change in capability for the RAF.
The cutting-edge aircraft, which will replace the current Reaper RPAS force, will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations from its base at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
“Protector will be deployed in wide-ranging Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations where its ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer a vastly improved ISTAR capability. Given that it is designed to fly in non-segregated, civil airspace, the Protector RPAS will also be able to support multiple civilian missions, including search and rescue and disaster response missions,” said Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes.
Protector’s ability to fly consistently for up to 40 hours will offer the RAF vastly improved armed intelligence and reconnaissance sorties. The innovative fleet will also have advanced anti-icing and lightning protection, providing the RAF with unprecedented flexibility to operate in extreme weather conditions.
Protector also comes with enhanced data links and will carry next-generation, low collateral, precision strike weapons – the UK-made Brimstone missile (MBDA) and Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb (Raytheon UK).
GA-ASI’s development of MQ-9B began in 2014 as a company-funded program to deliver an RPA that meets the stringent STANAG-4671 UAV System Airworthiness Requirements, which provide the basis for type certification by NATO member-state military airworthiness authorities. The MQ-9B is provisioned for the GA-ASI-developed Detect and Avoid System (DAAS) and is built for adverse weather performance with lightning protection, damage tolerance, and de-icing system. It features rapid integration of new payloads with nine hard points. The aircraft can “self-deploy” using SATCOM-enabled Automatic Takeoff and Landing, which eliminates forward-based launch-and-recovery equipment and personnel. In addition to the SkyGuardian, MQ-9B is also available as the SeaGuardian® for maritime missions.
The MQ-9B has also been selected by the Australian Defence Force and received considerable interest from civil and military customers around the world. The Government of Belgium has also approved Belgian Defense to negotiate the acquisition of MQ-9B.