The RAF’s existing fleet of MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is to be replaced with a new-generation system called Protector. Claire Apthorp looks at the programme.

In October 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, confirmed plans initially introduced in that year’s strategic defence and security review (SDSR) for the new Protector system.

More than 20 Protectors will be acquired to replace the 10-strong Reaper fleet.

They are being purchased, according to the MoD, in order to “dramatically increase the UK’s ability to identify, track, deter and ultimately counter potential threats”.

A ministry spokesperson added: “Combined with the increase in the size of the fleet, this will substantially enhance the UK’s global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.”

The Protector UAS has since been revealed as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ (GA-ASI’s) Certifiable Predator B (CPB).

According to the MoD, the CPB is being acquired under a £415 million foreign military sale (FMS) with the US Department of Defense (DoD). “The MoD has conducted a thorough assessment phase, which has concluded that the CPB is the only system capable of achieving UK military type certification and delivering the Protector requirement within the required timescales.”

Developed from the outset as a type-certifiable UAS, CBP is a modified Predator B aircraft that is fully compliant with NATO’s UAV system airworthiness requirements and the related UK Def Stan 00-970 – the default certification specification for MoD military-registered aircraft.

The FMS was approved by the US State Department in November 2016, with the package to include up to 26 aircraft (16 with an option for an additional 10), along with supporting equipment, including ground control stations, launch and recovery elements, and communications equipment.

Payload components include multi-spectral targeting systems, the AN/APY-8 Lynx IIe Block 20A synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicators, and embedded GPS/inertial guidance units.

The Defence Security Cooperation Agency’s notification of the sale request also gave more insight into how the UK may use the fleet beyond counter-terror operations, with potential applications to include ISR for homeland security, battlefield situational awareness, combat search and rescue, and ground troop support.

Currently still in development, the CBP completed its first flight in November 2016.

The UAS is being offered in several configurations, including an unweaponised maritime patrol variant to support open-ocean and littoral surface surveillance for border patrol, coast guard, and disaster relief missions.

Adapting to new threats

The UK’s version, however – as it will replace the UK’s armed Reaper capability – will be armed.

In December 2016, MBDA revealed that the MoD was planning to arm Protector with the Brimstone precision-strike missile. If agreed as part of the MoD’s main gate selection of the aircraft, MBDA will work with the MoD, the US DoD and GA-ASI on the programme to integrate the missile into the UAS, with the expectation of achieving trials and test firings toward the end of the decade.

Brimstone will give Protector the ability to strike fast-moving, manoeuvring targets with both man-in-the-loop post-launch guidance and also autonomous post-launch all-weather capabilities. The missile has previously been successfully fired from the MQ-9 Reaper, and a number of further unspecified enhanced capabilities are planned to be developed and incorporated into the solution for Protector (among other aircraft) to enable it to meet evolving requirements and adapt to new threats.

There are also plans to integrate Paveway IV laser-guided bombs on to the air vehicle.

CPB will certainly provide a step change capability for British forces. With its increased payload capacity, significantly increased endurance of more than 40 hours (MQ-9 Reaper’s endurance is 27 hours), and improved technologies, including automatic take-off and landing, de-icing and lightning protection, allowing operations in adverse weather, and a detect and avoid system, the UAS has a mission flexibility and operational capacity that will offer the RAF a true force multiplier capability.