The UK is continuing to maintain its MQ-9A fleet as it simultaneously prepares for the introduction of the replacement MQ-9 Protector RG Mk1 aircraft, with manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) awarded a $25.4m support agreement for the former platform.

Announced by the US Department of Defense (DoD) on 29 August, the agreement will see GA-ASI provides contractor logistics support for the MQ-9A and ground control station operated by the UK Royal Air force (RAF). Work will be performed “at an international location” and is expected to be completed by 31 March 2024.

13 Squadron RAF, based at RAF Waddington in the UK, operates the MQ-9A Reaper uncrewed aerial vehicle, which in March this year marked ten years of operations. The MQ-9A aircraft are based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

According to the RAF, in 2024, 13 Squadron is due to operate the service’s new MQ-9B Protector aircraft. The reformed 31 Squadron will also operate the Protector drones and similarly be based at RAF Waddington.

Before basing operations from the East Midlands, the RAF’s Reapers were controlled by UK personnel based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, US.

Training underway for new MQ-9 Protector

Meanwhile, UK instructors from 54 Squadron RAF are undertaking the first instructor operating course (IOC) on MQ-9 Protector RG Mk1 simulators at the GA-ASI Flight Test and Training Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

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54 Squadron is based at RAF Waddington, hub of the RAF’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) fleet. The Squadron became the ISTAR Operational Conversion Unit in 2005.

According to a 29 August release from the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), IOC crews, comprising of a pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence controller (MIC), have been testing various scenarios through the simulators, under the tuition of instructors from US manufacturer GA-ASI.

UK personnel have begun training on the Protector drone command system in the US, and will in turn train UK squadrons in its operation from RAF Waddington. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

Simulated missions include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activity to find, fix and follow designated targets on the ground, with the pilot maintaining an optimum position in the air, while the sensor operator and MIC work together maintain target tracking.

The objective of this IOC is to create RAF specific training material and mission scenarios for future Protector drone crews. Training evaluates the skills required to operate Protector and its equipment, including real-time exploitation of intelligence involving the Multi-Spectral Targeting System and Synthetic Aperture Radar.

The Protector programme is also planning to create and support an International Training Centre at RAF Waddington.

According to the MoD release the UK is investing in 16 MQ-9 Protector drone for the RAF, the first eight to support Initial Operating Capability scheduled for late 2024 at RAF Waddington.