UK’s First Protector RG Mk1 Unmanned Aircraft Completes Maiden Flight

The UK’s first Protector RG Mk1 unmanned aircraft has successfully completed its maiden flight after coming off the production line.

The first flight was conducted in US on Friday, September 25 by manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI). The Protector RG Mk1 is the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) variant of the GA-ASI’s MQ-9B SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

The latest milestone in the UK Protector programme follows the announcement in July that the first three aircraft were being manufactured following the award by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) of a £65 million contract to GA-ASI.

Protector RG Mk1, which will replace the current Reaper Force when it is introduced to the front-line, is considered a step change in capability for the RAF. The cutting-edge platform will be capable of being flown anywhere in the world while being operated by personnel located at their home base at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire where it will enter service by mid-2024.

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 ISR and weapons capacity and improved weather resilience, Protector will play a vital intelligence and deterrent role in countering future threats.”

Protector RG Mk1 (MQ-9B) Infographic. Credit: RAF.

This first Protector aircraft will remain in the US to support system testing as part of a combined UK MOD, U.S. Air Force (USAF) and GA-ASI test team. Upon completion of this initial testing, it will be delivered to the MOD in the summer of 2021 but will remain in the USA to complete the RAF’s test and evaluation programme. The first aircraft delivery to the RAF will be in 2023.

This is the first of the three Protector aircraft currently on order, although the contract includes an option for the remaining 13 aircraft to complete the currently planned fleet of 16 aircraft that will more than double the capability currently provided by Reaper.

Protector will have to meet stringent NATO and UK safety certification standards meaning it could operate in civilian airspace.

The aircraft 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.

Sir Simon Bollom, CEO of Defence Equipment and Support, said:

“The maiden flight of the UK’s first Protector aircraft is yet another important step in this significant programme, which will see a truly cutting-edge capability delivered to the RAF. The committed DE&S team involved have worked collaboratively with industry to overcome considerable challenge and ensure this project remains on schedule.”

The aircraft will use enhanced data links and carry next-generation, low-collateral, precision strike weapons –the UK-made MBDA Brimstone air-to-ground missile (AGM) and Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb (LGB) from Raytheon UK. The fleet will also have advanced anti-icing and lightning protection, providing the RAF with unprecedented flexibility to operate in adverse weather conditions.

Group Captain Shaun Gee, the RAF’s Director Air ISTAR Programmes, said:

“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 be able to respond rapidly and offer flexibility, delivering many types of military or civil authority support missions, including search and rescue.”

MQ-9B SkyGuardian

MQ-9B SkyGuardian is a variant of the MQ-9A Reaper/Predator B RPA developed by GA-ASI in order to make it compliant with flight regulations for operation within civilian airspace. The aircraft was previously called Certifiable Predator B.

The MQ-9B was built from the ground up to meet global airworthiness standards including NATO STANAG 4671 airworthiness requirements. The multi-mission aircraft is built for all-weather performance with lightning protection, damage tolerance, and a de-icing system.

MQ-9B is highly modular and is easily configured with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. The aircraft is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads and includes a state-of-the-art Detect and Avoid (DAA) system including space, weight, and power (SWaP) provisions to enable the retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar (DRR) for operation in non-cooperative airspace. The RPAS system also includes a completely redesigned & modernized integrated ground control station with 4 crew stations.

The weaponized version of the SkyGuardian will be able to carry precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and air-to-ground missiles (AGMs). The SeaGuardian is a proposed maritime version of SkyGuardian fitted with Multimode 360 Maritime Surface Search Radar and Automatic identification system (AIS).

In addition to the RAF, MQ-9B has been selected by the Australian Government for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) under Project Air 7003. The Government of Belgium has also approved Belgian Defense to negotiate the acquisition of GA-ASI’s MQ-9B.

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