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On approach: UK progresses Protector programme

The UK is set to acquire 16 Protector RG1 UAVs, seen here in its SkyGuardian demonstrator guise, to replace 10 Reaper UAVs that are approaching the end of their airframe lives. (Crown Copyright)

In the third quarter of 2023, the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) will take delivery from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI) its first production-model Protector RG1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the UK-specific version of the company's MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian.

This major milestone will be followed a few months later by the transfer of the first Protector to its new home at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. For the first time ever, armed UAVs will be routinely operating from a base in the United Kingdom.

Getting the Protector into service has been a rocky road, with a budget crisis in the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) causing a two-year delay that led to the programme going 65% over budget. This is one of the biggest cost overruns in recent UK procurement experience. Despite the delays and cost overruns, the RAF and the ministry have stuck with the Protector because of the pressing need to replace the GA-ASI MQ-9A Reapers with more a capable system.

Speaking at the DSEI event in London in September 2021, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston, the head of the RAF, praised the Protector, saying it represented “a giant leap forward in technology and aircraft performance over its predecessor Reaper”.

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