The RAF’s new Protector drone, which can fly anywhere in the world, has been hailed as an “incredibly important tool” against terrorism by the Defence Secretary.
Ben Wallace said that in today’s “unstable and dangerous” world, the terrorist threat to the UK is now global.
Announcing a £94 million investment to make RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, a hub for allies to train on the new drone, Ben Wallace said Protector is not “a silver bullet to deal with terrorism, but it’s one of the tools in the box”.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect British citizens lives and our interests and allies … wherever that may be.
“[Protector] gives me the ability to authorise kinetic strikes to defend our interests and our nation. This is an incredibly important tool in our armoury.”
The new drone, 16 of which are due in service by mid-2024, will be able to fly in civilian airspace, meaning they can operate from the UK for the first time.
Fitted with advanced sensors and weapons, Protector will be able to fly combat missions as well as supporting local authorities for tasks such as search and rescue and environmental inspections, for example after major flooding.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, told The Telegraph recently that she hoped Protector would be able to fly over the English Channel, monitoring crossings of illegal migrants in small boats.
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said: “The Protector aircraft is a huge leap forward in performance and autonomous technology.
“It can fly for 40 hours anywhere in the world, providing critical surveillance and precision strike to protect the UK and our allies.
“As the lead customer for this aircraft, I am delighted the Royal Air Force is once again at the cutting edge of airpower innovation.”
ACM Wigston said Belgium and Australia will be the first nations to have air forces trained at the new centre in RAF Waddington.
Around 30 other countries have expressed interest in buying Protector and may well train in the UK in the future.
New technology will allow Protector to taxi, take off and land anywhere in the world via satellite link from a remote base.
With special anti-icing and lightning protection, the aircraft will be able to conduct missions in adverse weather conditions.
Up to now, drones have needed ground control stations at the airbase they fly from and land at, and have not been certified to fly in regulated airspace alongside civilian air traffic.
The 38ft-long aircraft will carry up to 18 Brimstone missiles, which have been used to attack moving targets such as vehicles, as well as Paveway IV laser-guided bombs, spread across nine weapons points on the aircraft.
Built by US company General Atomics, Protector, which can carry an even more deadly mix of sensors and weapons than Reaper, the RAF’s current large drone, will be operated by a crew of three, comprising a pilot, based remotely, a sensor operator and a mission intelligence coordinator.