General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) has been awarded a contract to produce and deliver 13 more Protector RG Mk1 Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) to the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed the signing of a £195m contract with the company.

In July last year, the UK MoD announced a production contract for the first three Protector RPAS.

This contract included 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.

Protector is expected to enter service in 2024 and will double the capability currently provided by Reaper once operational.

UK Defence Minister Jeremy Quin said: “Our fleet of sixteen Protector aircraft equipped with ultra-modern technology will provide the RAF with a vast global reach allowing us to monitor and protect the battlespace for hours on end.

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“The Protector programme involves industry across the UK with vital parts of the aircraft manufactured on the Isle of Wight, supporting highly skilled jobs for years to come.”

Delivery of the first Protector aircraft to the RAF is expected in 2023.

A key feature of Protector is its ability to fly in non-segregated airspace shared by commercial air traffic, which sets it apart from some other UAS.

Expected to replace the Reaper RPAS, Protector aircraft will primarily be used for intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR) operations. It can also be used to support civilian agencies if requested.

The aircraft can fly for 40 hours once airborne.

The aircraft can also be equipped with precision strike weapons, including MBDA’s Brimstone missile and Raytheon UK’s Paveway IV laser-guided bomb.

GA-ASI CEO Linden Blue said: “This commitment for 13 additional unmanned aircraft confirms the long-term confidence of the UK MoD and the Royal Air Force in the MQ-9B system and the Protector programme.

“The MQ-9B system will bring unparalleled reconnaissance capability to the RAF and help to ensure the security of the UK and its allies.”

In September last year, the UK’s first Protector RG Mk1 RPAS made its maiden flight.