Although development of the Royal Air Force’s Protector MALE UAV is clearly moving ahead following the first transatlantic flight of the SkyGuardian on 11 June the service remains tight-lipped on its entry into service date.
Manufacturer General Atomics (GA-ASI) flew the SkyGuardian, which will be known as the Protector when in RAF service, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA, to RAF Fairford in the UK, and was the first time such a platform had flown in civil UK airspace. The flight covered 3,760nm in over 24 hours.
The RAF has also been unable to reveal the base that will support Protector when it enters service. However, it has been disclosed that 31 Squadron will take responsibility of the aircraft.
Of note, a recent report by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has indicated that the successful delivery of Protector on time and under budget is ‘unachievable’.
Previously, a GA-ASI spokesperson told Shephard: ‘MQ-9B development and timetable is tied to its launch customer, the Royal Air Force. We continue to work in partnership with RAF to deliver a unique set of capabilities, including certifiability.’
The Protector will replace the 10 MQ-9 Reapers currently in service with the RAF, based at RAF Waddington.
Speaking to reporters during an event at RAF Fairford, Air Mshl Julian Young, Chief of Materiel (Air), said that the service will be able to manage the replacement of the aircraft so it is ‘pretty seamless’.
Along with the replacement of the aircraft, new ground control stations (GCS) will also be procured as the current GCS for the Reaper will not be compatible with the Protector.
As part of a foreign military sale (FMS) approved in 2016 the UK had requested a possible sale of up to twenty-six UAVs (16 with option for additional 10) and 12 GCSs (8 with option for additional 4). It is thought that a final figure of 21 airframes will be acquired.
As the lead customer the RAF has been working with GA-ASI since 2014 on development of aircraft, according to Young.
He said that there will indeed be some specific technologies that will be applicable to the UK. Two new features of the aircraft include a new paint and copper mesh system which will enhance the aircrafts lightning protection.
As development of the Protector continues Young said that he expected it ‘to be a little different’ when it enters RAF service.
The certifiability of the aircraft into civilian airspace is a key feature of the Protector and Young noted that ‘the Reaper will never fly over the mainland UK’ because of the forces uncertainties with the software and not having all of the data available to the UK.
However, because the RAF has worked of the software development of the Protector hand in hand with GA-ASI there is more certainty.
Regarding certification of the aircraft Young said: ‘It won’t be straight forward to certify it to be able to fly in the UK…but I hope it will be quicker than in the past.’
Young said that they are also expecting to integrate sense and avoid technology although he said ‘we are not there yet’.
The Protector has a wingspan of 24m, a length of 11.7m and a maximum gross take off weight of 5,670kg. The aircraft will be utilised for ISR mission but also includes six weapon hard points.