The Ministry of Defence has penned a new $363.6 million deal to procure additional Protector aircraft for the RAF.
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General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) has been awarded a new £195 million ($363.6 million) contract to deliver 13 additional Protector (SkyGuardian) RG Mk 1 (MQ-9B) aircraft to the Royal Air Force.
The new contract, announced by UK Defence Minister Jeremy Quin during a visit to local sub-contractor GKN Aerospace (GKNA), will take the total fleet size of the remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) to 16, expected to enter service with the RAF by mid-2024.
The aircraft is designed to provide critical surveillance capability for the RAF, equipped with a suite of surveillance equipment and precision strike weapons, which include the locally-produced Brimstone missile and Paveway IV Laser Guided Bomb.
The incoming fleet will also be built with advanced anti-icing and lightning protection to support operations in challenging weather conditions.
The fleet will be operated from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, with the first aircraft scheduled to be delivered in 2023.
Before entering service, Protector will be required to meet NATO and UK safety certification standards to ensure it can operate in civilian airspace, enabling it to support civilian operations.
The bolstered contract also includes four additional ground control stations and associated support equipment.
“Our fleet of 16 Protector aircraft equipped with ultra-modern technology will provide the RAF with a vast global reach allowing us to monitor and protect the battlespace for hours on end,” Minister Quin said.
“The Protector program involves industry across the UK with vital parts of the aircraft manufactured on the Isle of Wight, supporting highly-skilled jobs for years to come.”
Once in service, the Protector fleet will be deployed in a range of intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance operations, leveraging its ability to fly for up to 40 hours.
Protector Program Senior Responsible Owner, Air Commodore Richard Barrow said the new contract represents a major milestone for the UK.
“When Protector enters service in 2024, UK Defence will take an enormous jump forward in capability, giving us the ability to operate globally with this cutting-edge, highly-adaptable platform,” he said.
RAF deployed the first three aircraft for the first time in 2020, with the two completing and currently undergoing test and evaluation in the US.
The Protector, referred to globally as the SkyGuardian or SeaGuardian, has been ordered by a host of other nations around the world, including Australia.
Earlier this year, the Commonwealth government purchased up to 12 weapons-ready MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian aircraft for an estimated US$1.65 billion ($2.1 billion) via a foreign military sales agreement, approved by the US State Department.