A high-tech surveillance drone capable of carrying out missions across the globe has arrived at a Lincolnshire airbase for a series of trials. The new MQ-9B Protector, the first of 16 being sent to the UK, will undergo rigorous tests at RAF Waddington before they join the Royal Air Force’s fleet.
An upgrade on the 15-year-old Reaper drone, it will be operated remotely from the North Kesteven station by the recently reformed 31 Squadron. The RAF says the Protector, with its wingspan of 79 feet (24 metres), can track threats over land and sea, engage in counter-terrorism, and help the Coastguard with search and rescue missions.
James Cartlidge MP, the defence procurement minister for the Government, said: “The UK’s world-class Protector aircraft will emphasise our ultra-modern surveillance, intelligence, and precision strike capabilities, ensuring we are ready to monitor and protect against potential adversaries around the globe.
“With the first aircraft at RAF Waddington ready to begin trials, we will once again demonstrate how we are spearheading military defence technology.” Beginning the week of October 23, the first phase of tests will involve a circuit above RAF Waddington, alongside ground testing of the satellite links, taxi procedures, and take-off and landing trials.
Alex Hicks, the Protector programme’s air commodore and senior responsible owner, added: “The [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability team will be working with 56 Sqn, our test and evaluation experts, putting the aircraft through its paces to ensure it is ready for operational service next year, whilst the newly reformed 31 Sqn will focus on preparing to operate the aircraft in service.
“This is an important milestone for the programme, the air force and for wider defence and I am delighted to see Protector at RAF Waddington.” 31 Squadron, which dates back to 1915, was reformed on October 11 specifically to operate the drone from Waddington.
After spending the first half of the 20th century in India, and much of the Cold War in West Germany, the squadron previously piloted the Tornado GR fighter jet between 1984 and 2019. Fellow drone operators in the XIII Squadron lifted the lid on life piloting the Protector’s unmanned predecessor, the Reaper, saying that while the job was ‘superb,’ it took its toll.
The delivery of 15 further Protectors from the United States defence corporation General Atomics will be phased over the next two years. They are expected to be in service by July 2025.