New VTOL UAS would combine Leonardo’s airframe experience with Northrop Grumman’s knowledge of autonomous UAV technology.
DSEI 2021: RAF says Protector financial troubles a thing of the past
During an MQ-9B SeaGuardian flight test demonstration held at RAF Waddington on 9 September, Wigston told Shephard that cost increases for Protector, which shot up by 74% between initial cost evaluation and year of acquisition approval, according to the National Audit Office, are ‘behind us now’.
He strongly defended the acquisition, adding that he had ‘absolute confidence’ in reaching IOC in early 2024 after first deliveries to RAF Waddington in 2023.
Based on an order of 16 Protectors, four of which are currently produced and undergoing tests by General Atomics, the UK will retire its fleet of MQ-9A Reapers.
Alongside the aircraft themselves, the full acquisition also includes seven ground control stations and five synthetic training systems. Two RAF squadrons will take charge of the equipment – 31 Squadron and another still to be announced.
The aircraft will be controlled by a three-person crew comprising a pilot, a sensor operator and a mission intelligence coordinator.
Set to be deployed in ISTAR missions, the RAF Protector configuration will include the integration of UK-made weapons — Brimstone (MBDA) and Paveway IV laser-guided bombs (Raytheon UK) — and despite Leonardo’s Seaspray 7500E V2 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar currently being unfunded, that system could replace the standard Raytheon SeaVueX-Band radar.
Such a move was described as ‘an ambition’ of the RAF, by a spokesperson of the service.
‘With [our] maritime radar we can start to really get into multi-domain operations, providing a picture to both land and maritime commanders [enabling them] to be able to see from high altitude and over long periods of time, everything that's going on across the battlefield,’ said Shaun Gee, UK programme director for Protector.
On the subject of live-fire tests for Brimstone and Paveway IV, Wigston said that the RAF use ‘ranges in the US and the far north of Scotland’, but he stopped short of identifying any particular range for future Protector weapons tests.
Some of the major improvements between the Reaper and Protector orders include the latter being able to be ‘deployed seamlessly’, noted Gee, referring to the MQ-9B not requiring launch and recovery teams.
‘Reaper was bought under an urgent operational requirement and quite rightly tied to the US government but [it] comes with quite a large logistical trail,’ added Gee, whereas Protector will be a UK sovereign asset that the RAF is free to move around as it wishes.
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