SkyGuardian: RAF's Next-Generation Protector Aircraft Takes To UK Skies

A pre-production example of the UK's new Protector aircraft has been tested in UK skies as preparation continues for the arrival of the real thing at RAF Waddington.

The UK has ordered 16 remotely piloted Protector aircraft from General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI).

All 16 aircraft will be based at RAF Waddington, the RAF's ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) hub, in Lincolnshire.

The base will host the Protector International Training Centre, with a £94m infrastructure investment helping to house the aircraft ahead of its entry into service in 2024.

Speaking at RAF Waddington, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace praised the flight of the SkyGuardian (which will be known as Protector when it enters RAF service) as a "huge milestone".

"Today marks a huge milestone in the Protector programme, bringing us one step closer to delivering this world-leading capability to the RAF.

"This £94m investment cements RAF Waddington's place as the UK's ISTAR hub, ensuring our Protector fleet can operate safely and effectively for many years to come."

The investment at RAF Waddington includes a new training campus for the service and international partners, new single living accommodation for Protector ground crews, a hangar, office facilities, a new road to the Protector area, and a new taxiway.

Protector will be able to conduct missions for up to 40 hours and fly in non-segregated civil airspace, allowing rapid response and flexibility.

Mr Wallace told Forces News the new technology will enable the UK to "reach globally, to counter our threats or to make ourselves more aware of the situations as they develop on the ground".

"That can be piracy, that could be patrolling maritime spaces, that could be being used to protect our soldiers in other countries - just making sure we know what's ahead of them."

When asked if - given the West's withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban's return to power - Protector was the future of fighting terrorism, Mr Wallace alluded to the drone being used in the country.

"Where either nations host people who wish us our harm or indeed the state has failed... sometimes we are forced in a position where if the threat is imminent to you and I, to a British citizen or there's a bomb plot about to happen, it may be the only option of stopping," he said. 

The drone uses a design based on the existing Reaper drone and is made to reach heights of 40,000 feet with a payload of up to 4,800lbs (2,177kg).

Mr Wallace said Protector and similar systems replace "traditional" reconnaissance methods but are not meant to replace troops on the ground.

Protector will be fitted with Brimstone missiles and Paveway bomb systems and will use onboard sensors to avoid other aircraft.

There are seven weapons stations on the drone, meaning a total of 21 Brimstone missiles could be carried - a significant uplift over Reaper.

The Protector RG Mk1, the British variant of the MQ-9B drone, will be capable of being flown anywhere in the world while being operated by personnel located at its home base.

Pilots from GA-ASI have been operating the aircraft and this month they will be part of Joint Warrior, the largest military exercise in Europe, bringing together the Royal NavyBritish Army and Royal Air Force.

Cover image: The pre-production example of the UK's Protector aircraft in flight (Picture: MOD).