Last month the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a £65 million contract for delivery of three new Protector drones for the Royal Air Force (RAF). In an upbeat press release, which included the bold claim that the drones are “capable of strike missions anywhere in the world,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace enthused that “the UK is proving once again that we are a world leader in defence technology” (although Protector will actually be purchased from General Atomics, a US-based company, and manufactured in the US) and that the drones would be “meeting the UK’s defence and security needs for decades to come.”
A few days before the MoD’s announcement, however, a more impartial assessment of progress of the Protector programme was published by the government watchdog, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) in its annual report on progress of major projects.
The Protector programme was rated as ‘amber’ by the IPA in its confidence assessment for delivery of the programme, meaning that “successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues already exist, requiring management attention. These appear resolvable at this stage and, if addressed promptly, should not present a cost/schedule overrun”. The rating is an improvement from amber-red last year (“successful delivery of the project is in doubt”) and red the year before that (“successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”).
However, as the IPA states, the improved confidence in the Protector project is in large part due to a “rebaselining” which took place last year, when MoD recognised that the project could not be delivered to meet its original aims because it had slipped by 28 months from its planned timetable and costs had grown by £325 million. As a result, the project’s budget was increased to a total of £1,155 million and the in-service date for the first aircraft was delayed firstly until November 2023 and subsequently till mid-2024.
The newly announced contract is for the first three Protector drones, including three ground control stations and support equipment, with an option to purchase thirteen more aircraft and four more ground control stations in due course. The RAF wants them to be able to fly in unsegregated airspace within the UK.
However, as our briefingon Protector explains, approval for this is subject to approval by airspace regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and there are significant safety risks to the public with flying large drones alongside other aircraft and this represents a significant question mark over the direction of the Protector programme. (end of excerpt)
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