The UK Ministry of Defence has decided to procure the in-development General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Certifiable Predator B unmanned air vehicle under its Protector programme. The UAV will be acquired through a foreign military sales contract with the US Department of Defense.

It was announced in October that the UK would replace its 10-strong MQ-9 Reaper Block 1 fleet with a derivative of the type under Protector, but it was unknown at that time if it would select the certifiable variant or the Block 5 that is currently coming off the production line.

In a 26 April justification document published on the EU’s website, the MoD has now revealed that a need for the new system to be flown in UK airspace has led to the decision that the certifiable Predator is the only viable selection for the requirement. Some £415 million ($606 million) will be allocated for the purchase.

“The MoD has conducted a thorough assessment phase, which has concluded that the Certifiable Predator B [CPB] is the only system capable of achieving UK military type certification and delivering the Protector requirement within the required time-scales,” the document says. “The only means of acquiring the CPB is through a contract with the US DoD.”

Protector will see “more than 20” UAVs acquired to replace the Royal Air Force’s in-service Reapers for operations between 2018 and 2030. Speaking last October, Air Cdre Peter Grinstead, head of UK unmanned air systems at the MoD, revealed to a Royal Aeronautical Society conference in London that a new Reaper derivative would be selected for the replacement.

At that time it was unknown which configuration the MoD would select, with Grinstead saying that he could not provide details on the exact configuration until a so-called Main Gate procurement decision was made in March 2016.

MQ-9 ER - General Atomics

The extended-range variant

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

In February, General Atomics announced that a long-endurance Predator B, which will eventually increase the flight time of the Reaper from 27h to 40h, had carried out its first flight.

A test vehicle was retrofitted with a 24m (78.7ft)-long wing – a 4m increase – and the new variant also has an increased internal fuel capacity and additional hardpoints. The wing also has provisions for de-icing and integrated low- and high-band radio-frequency antennas.

The US Air Force has fielded an interim retrofitted Block 5 model with an extended-range capability that includes auxiliary external fuel tanks and a new wing, but General Atomics is looking towards a production variant featuring the longer wing and increased internal fuel capability as a standard that could be certified to fly in national airspace.

The longer wing is the first element for the certifiable development project, and the lead production example is expected to emerge in early 2018.

Further hardware and software upgrades planned for the certifiable MQ-9 include a sense-and-avoid capability, improved structural fatigue and damage tolerance, more robust flight control software and enhancements allowing operations in adverse weather, General Atomics says. Other improvements include short-field take-off and landing capability and spoilers on the wing to enable precision automatic landings.