UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace today announced the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has signed a £65m contract for its first three Protector Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS).

Announcing the contract at today’s 2020 Air and Space Power Conference, Wallace said the aircraft will extend the reach of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and provide another boost to the UK’s arsenal of unmanned systems.

Protector is projected to enter into service in 2024, delivering a ‘step-change’ in capability for the RAF. The aircraft is the first certified RPAS meaning it can be flown in unsegregated airspace including civilian airspace using what the MOD calls a “ground-breaking detect and avoid” system.

Protector is slated to replace the Reaper RPAS and will undertake Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting and Reconnaissance (iStar) operations out of RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. RAF Waddington is home to several RAF unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operations including 216 Sqn which is working on swarming drone capabilities.

Commenting on the contract, Wallace 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.”

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Protector can fly for 40 hours on a single sortie and can carry next-generation low-collateral weapons including the UK-made MBDA Brimstone Missile and the Raytheon Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb. The RPAS are also equipped with anti-icing and lightning protection allowing the RAF the flexibility to fly the aircraft in extreme weather.

The contract signed with General Atomics includes three ground stations and associated support equipment as well as the option to purchase another 13 aircraft, to complete the RAF’s planned fleet of 16 Protector aircraft. Double the outgoing Reaper fleet.

Commenting on the signing, CEO of Defence Equipment and Support Sir Simon Bollom said: “I am delighted to announce that we have got Protector production on contract. The DE&S team have demonstrated their remarkable resilience and overcome considerable challenges to ensure this significant programme remained on track.

“Their efforts and the collaborative commitment from industry means that the RAF can still look forward to the delivery of the cutting-edge Protector and the step-change in capability that it brings.”

The MOD added that the aircraft’s ability to fly in civilian airspace could expand its capabilities and if requested be used to support civilian agencies with search and rescue operations.