General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has signed contracts with MBDA and Raytheon Systems for the armament of the UK Royal Air Force's future Protector remotely piloted air system, which is based on the manufacturer's MQ-9B SkyGuardian.

The US firm has also signed a memorandum of agreement with BAE Systems to co-operate on integration of the medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) into the UK's national airspace.

Protector will be the world’s first certificated UAV to operate in unsegregated airspace, noted Air Vice Marshal Simon Ellard at a contract signing event in London on 24 January, which included a range of UK suppliers involved in the RAF programme.

BAE Systems will support the development of concepts of operations (CONOPS) for the UAV, General Atomics says.

Raytheon's UK division will supply Paveway IV precision-guided bombs, while MBDA will provide Brimstone air-to-surface missiles for Protector.

Brimstone missiles are already in use on the RAF’s current UAVs, the MQ-9 Reaper, which Protector will replace, with initial operational capability expected to be achieved in 2023.

MBDA says the weapons system will provide the RAF's ISTAR surveillance and targeting operations with "new capabilities" and enable them to "engage high-speed moving and manoeuvring targets", including, for the first time, fast maritime craft.

Landing-gears and fuel bladders for Protector will be supplied by aerostructures specialist GKN, which has also been approved to potentially supply carbon-composite empennage structures for the V-tail aircraft.

Leonardo will provide its Seaspray maritime, surface-search radar and SAGE electronic support measures equipment for the UAV,

Other suppliers include Abaco Systems, Cobham, Daco Hand Controllers and the UK’s Defence Electronics & Components Agency.

CAE has been selected to develop a synthetic training system for Protector flightcrews.

Ultra Electronics Command & Sonar Systems has been named as supplier for sonobuoys for a potential maritime version of Protector, which is being discussed for deployment by the Royal Navy.

AVM Ellard says the RAF has been "absolutely delighted" with the Reaper, which served the UK forces "exceptionally well" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While it was a "demanding customer", he says the RAF was "proud to be the lead customer" for the new aircraft designed to fly in civilian airspace.

Noting that the MQ-9B was developed to meet NATO's STANAG airworthiness requirements for manned aircraft, General Atomics chief executive Linden Blue says the move enables other nations to potentially adopt the UAV for operation in their airspace without having to "start from scratch".