The UK Ministry of Defence has awarded £100 million ($126 million) to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to kick off the Royal Air Force’s Protector unmanned air vehicle programme.

This funding will take the Certifiable Predator B (CPB) development to the critical design review stage, which is a necessary milestone before the UAV progresses towards initial operating capability.

The UK is the first customer for the developmental CPB and plans to replace its 10 Block 1 MQ-9 Reapers – from which the new model is derived – with as many as 26 of the aircraft.

“Britain faces ever-evolving threats and we must look at innovative solutions to stay ahead of our enemies,” the MoD says. “Doubling our unmanned air fleet will substantially enhance both the intelligence gathering and firepower of the RAF.”


The first CPB

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

The Protector fleet will be acquired on a spiral basis, and will eventually be fully integrated into UK and NATO airspace.

Building on the armed Reaper capability that is already in service, the CPB will gain increased range, endurance and maximum take-off weight, plus an automatic take-off and landing capability, de-icing equipment, and lightning and fire protection.

Additionally, longer wings will allow the UK’s examples to have six hardpoints for weapons beneath the wing, compared with the Reaper’s four.

The RAF is planning to integrate British-developed weapons with the CPB, namely the Raytheon Systems Paveway IV precision-guided bomb and MBDA’s dual-mode Brimstone air-to-surface missile. Timelines surrounding integration of these weapons are under development, but are yet to be fully established.

In November, the US State Department approved the sale of up to 26 CPBs to the UK in a deal worth $1 billion. This total includes an initial purchase of 16 aircraft, plus options for 10 more.

The CPB platform carried out its maiden flight at General Atomics’ Gray Butte facility in California in November, and deliveries to the UK are expected to begin in 2018.