Documents obtained by Drone Wars using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) reveal how British military officials view the UK’s next generation armed drone, known as Protector, and the types of advanced capabilities the aircraft will have.
Protector, which is set to replace the UK’s current fleet of armed Reaper drones in the mid-2020s, is essentially SkyGuardian—the latest version of the Predator drone being produced by General Atomics—plus UK modifications. The modifications revealed in the FOI documents (comprising presentations given by UK military personnel at a drone technology conference held last September) are significant because they provide an insight into how the Ministry of Defence (MOD) plan to utilise Protector.
Looking more widely, Protector epitomises the second drone age, characterised by a global expansion in both the type of drones being used by states and the scale of operations, including in the domestic sphere.
In one of the presentations obtained, Colonel Paul Hughes, Chief Engineer for the UK’s strategic (i.e. armed) drones, details the weapons and electronic tools Protector will carry. One such tool Hughes notes is ‘VORTEX’ (Video Oriented Transceiver for EXchange of Information), which appears to be manufactured by L3Harris. VORTEX is a ‘data link’ system which transmits and receives information, including encrypted live video. The VORTEX system is important for the UK as it is able to transmit on different types of wavebands. This will allow the UK to utilise its Skynet satellite system to transmit information to and from its drones—which it has been unable to do so far.
It is worth underscoring the fact that Hughes -- for the first time we are aware of – explicitly states that Protector will use the UK’s Skynet system rather than US or commercial satellite systems. As Drone Wars has previously noted, the significance of Protector being able to use Skynet is that it increases the range of communication options with the aircraft, and potentially the range of locations in which it can be operated – as well as decreasing dependence on US satellite systems.
His presentation also notes that Protector will be equipped with UK-made Paveway IV and Brimstone 3 missiles. Whereas Reaper could carry a maximum of two 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, Protector has nine weapons stations. As three Brimstone missiles are carried by a single launcher, this is a significant increase in the lethality of the UK’s drones. (end of excerpt)
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