The RAF’s new battlefield drone could be used to search for migrants crossing the Channel under plans being considered by ministers.

Due to enter service in 2024, the new Protector drone will be able to stay airborne for 40 hours, providing surveillance day and night in nearly all weather conditions.

Unlike earlier versions of the aircraft, Protector will be able to fly in airspace regulated by an air traffic authority, meaning military operations in support of the Home Office in the UK are possible, using advanced battlefield surveillance drones for the first time. 

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said: “We use a number of ISR platforms (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). The Home Office has access to some of its own and we have ours and we’re always, through a backup process, helping each other. 

“Protector is a piece of equipment that can cover maritime, land, ISR or strike. We won’t, obviously, be using strike over the Channel. 

“One of the attractions of Protectors is that it’s more mobile; it’s much more plug and play. These things have the range to go wherever you want to go.”

Future RAF – Protector

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said sharing assets with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) made sense where appropriate, adding that Protector’s ability to stay aloft for almost two-days straight was “more than helpful”.

In particular, she said the ability to use Protector’s imagery in court proceedings was “vital” in securing convictions for people smugglers. 

“We use aerial surveillance already,” she said. “It helps us in terms of not just getting footage but actually identifying people smugglers, the very people that are facilitating these crossings.

“We provide that evidence to court, which is why we get the levels of sanctions and penalties that we’ve achieved so far. 

“With the legislation changes that I’m bringing in, we want to get proper tariffs. We are going to change the sentencing regime around people smugglers and all of this will be evidential in court, so it’s really vital.”

How Channel migrant people smuggling operations are financed

The Protector Medium-Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone is over 11m long with a wingspan of 24m. Armed with 500lb Paveway IV laser-guided bombs and Brimstone missiles it is controlled via satellite link to a ground station at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. 

Pilots will be able to operate the aircraft anywhere around the world in busy, unsegregated airspace once ground-breaking detect and avoid technology, which allows it to fly in close proximity to civilian air traffic, is accepted as safe by the Civil Aviation Authority.  

The drone will also be able to take off and land automatically unlike Reaper, the RAF’s current remotely piloted aircraft, which requires personnel to be deployed in a ground control station to ensure safe launch and recovery.

Built by US company General Atomics, Protector will be operated by a crew of three, comprising a Pilot, a Sensor Operator and a Mission Intelligence Coordinator.

The ability to fly in regulated airspace means Protector can be used in the UK and other countries with air traffic control procedures.

How the RAF’s Protector drone will be used

As well as supporting UK Border Force tackling people smuggling operations across the Channel, the aircraft could also be used to assist the RAF’s fleet of Poseidon submarine-hunting planes based in RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. 

In July 2020 the MoD agreed to buy the first three of 16 Protector drones for £65 million. 

Due in service in 2024, they will replace the existing fleet of 10 Reaper aircraft which were bought as urgent requirements for operations in Afghanistan.

Like the Reapers, the Protectors will be flown by 13 Squadron (motto: We assist by watching) based at RAF Waddington and 39 Squadron from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. 

All aircraft will eventually be based at RAF Waddington, with a planned investment of £93 million to construct a purpose-built hanger as well as new facilities and accommodation for crews.