UK Prime Minister David Cameron has introduced the “Protector” programme, which will seek to replace the Royal Air Force’s 10-strong General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air vehicle fleet.

Touted as a counter-terrorism acquisition, Protector will see the UK acquire in excess of 20 UAVs to replace the Reapers, and will take the place of the Scavenger programme that was expected to provide the new medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) UAV by 2020.

“With a greater range and endurance, the new Protector aircraft will dramatically increase the UK’s ability to identify, track, deter and ultimately counter potential threats,” the Ministry of Defence says. “Combined with the increase in the size of the fleet, this will substantially enhance the UK’s global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.”

Although the UK’s anticipated Strategic Defence and Security Review is not expected to be released until November, the MoD says the Protector programme has been allocated under the review.

The Reaper has been operated by the RAF since 2007. It is the only export operator of the type that can carry weapons, and the first armed sortie using its aircraft was carried out in Afghanistan in May 2008. The type is currently being employed as part of the UK contribution to coalition activities against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

RAF Reaper - Crown Copyright

The MQ-9 Reaper

Crown Copyright

The UK's Scavenger programme had been expected to replace the Reaper, but this has now been renamed and launched as Protector, with introduction expected towards the end of the decade, the RAF says.

Approval was granted in 2014 to allow the Reaper capability to be maintained until the Scavenger capability entered service at the end of this decade, as the current aircraft were originally procured as an urgent operational requirement to support operations in Afghanistan.

The UK division of General Atomics has its sights set on further sales in the UK, and has hinted that the nation's maritime patrol aircraft capability gap is a key area that a modified Reaper could fill.

At a conference at the Royal Navy’s Culdrose base in Cornwall in September, Jonny King, director of General Atomics UK, introduced the concept of a Guardian – the maritime variant of the Reaper – deploying sonobuoys from under-wing pods. Other technology developments that the company is advancing include extended-range wings and external fuel tanks, which have just been fielded by the US Air Force for the first time.

A certifiable MQ-9 with a sense and avoid system is also nearing completion, and King notes that this development will be ready in time for what is now the Protector requirement.