The first Royal Air Force (RAF) Protector RG Mk1 remote piloted aircraft system (RPAS) has taken to UK skies for the first time over RAF Waddington, the latest milestone in the programme that will see the new drone replace the in-service MQ-9A Reaper RPAS.

According to a UK MoD release published on 17 November, the flight will be followed up with additional serials conducted under the test and evaluation phase of Protector’s entry into RAF service, due to take place in 2024.

The UK MoD said the RAF Protector RG Mk1 taxied and flew a series of circuits around RAF Waddington airfield under the control of a pilot operator.

The arrival of 15 further aircraft from manufacturer General Atomics in the US into the UK will be a phased delivery over the coming years. All aircraft are expected to be delivered and in service by July 2025, the MoD stated.

The Protector drone will typically be tasked with performing a range of operations such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime security, and search and rescue. The aircraft will be certified by Nato safety and certification standards allowing it to operate in the UK and European civilian airspace.

The UK Protector drone fleet will be based at and remotely operated from RAF Waddington, with the platform capable of operating at heights of up to 40,000ft for up to 30 hours. Although the UK Government rarely, if ever, confirms overseas drone operations, it is possible the type could be forward based at UK military sites in the Middle East or Mediterranean.

Protector RPAS programme has seen difficulties

The first of the RAF’s Protector RG Mk1 RPAS arrived at RAF Waddington in September to commence trails before the fleet’s eventual entry into service, with the programme more than £500m ($607.2m) over budget and having suffered delays to service entry and initial operational capability (IOC).

The aircraft was assembled by the newly reformed 31 Squadron who prepared it for ground and air testing. The MoD stated that 31 Squadron, which previously operated the Tornado GR4, will operate and maintain the aircraft.

A key differentiator of Protector compared to the RAF’s current MQ-9A Reapers is the type’s ability to operate within commercial airspace, enabling a much greater area of operations, due to integrated sense-and-avoid technology. The UK RAF’s ageing MQ-9A Reaper RPAS have been in service for more than 15 years, and widely used in surveillance and strike operations.

The Protector programme budget increased from the 2016 Main Gate Business Case, which approved a whole life cost of £1.24bn, albeit with “50% confidence”, according to official UK Government parliamentary responses. As of March 2023, the current whole lift cost projection exceeded £1.76bn, comprised of a £325m difference in acquisition costs and around £190m in through life costs.

In addition, delays initiated by the UK MoD to the delivery of Protector, which required an extension of the RAF’s Reapers, resulted in a cost of £48.6m by March 2023, offset using support funding previously allocated to the Protector programme.

Initial planning for the Protectors at the 2016 Main Gate forecast an out-of-service date (OSD) of 2035, which has now shifted to 2040, according to the latest MoD planning. On current planning, Protector is expected to enter RAF service in late 2024, with an IOC declared in 2025.

The shift of the IOC to 2025 has been attributed to “software integration within the Prime Contractor and infrastructure challenges at RAF Waddington”, according to a 3 July UK parliamentary written response.

The 2040 time frame for Protector’s withdrawal from service is also 24 months later than outlined in March this year, with the UK Government Major Projects Portfolio 2023 data listing an OSD of 2038.