Cost of UK’s fleet of new armed drones increases by 40%

The Ministry of Defence’s efforts to cut its budget two year ago have contributed to the cost of new armed UK drones.

Official figures show that the cost to purchase and operate 16 Protector pilotless planes made in the US has increased to £1,76bn. This is up from an estimated lifetime total cost of £1.25bn in 2016.

In recent months, the Labour Party presented a series written questions to the parliament that revealed the extra costs associated with the programme.

Documents show that a decision made by the Ministry of Defence to delay the program by two years in 2021, which allowed it to claim unspecified savings in the year, increased the cost by £187mn.

Another issue that increased the cost was a late change to the specifications of a drone, which involved changing its primary camera to avoid future obsolescence.

General Atomics, a US-based company, makes the drone. It has wingspan of 24 meters which is larger than many business jets. The drone is equipped with sensors for surveillance and targetting and is armed with laser-guided 500lb bombs and air to ground missiles that can hit fast-moving cars.

Protector, originally scheduled to enter service at the end of last decade, has been delayed several times. The new version is due to be in service by the end of next year, but ministers are yet to confirm its full operational status.

The drones will replace Reaper drones currently in service with Royal Air Force, which were involved in controversial targeted attacks in Syria including the death of a British jihadi in 2015

The delay has led to the MoD extending the life of the Reaper system, at a cost £49mn. This was offset by funding allocated previously for the Protector Programme.

According to the latest MoD assessment of its large projects, it has given a “amber” rating for confidence and warned that “significant challenges” still remain.

John Healey, the shadow defence secretary for Labour, said that the increasing cost of Protector is an example of the MoD’s “broken”, procurement system and its wasteful attitude towards taxpayers’ funds.

Mark Francois is a former Conservative Minister of Defence and a member of the Commons defence committee. He said that the Protector program was “just another in the long list” (of procurement programs for the MoD) which had performed poorly when it came to cost and time.

The Ajax armoured vehicle (worth £5.5bn) and the Morpheus battlefield communication system (worth £3.2bn) have both suffered severe failures.

Francois asked Grant Shapps, the newly appointed Defence Secretary, to “wholesale-reform” the way that the Ministry acquires new systems.

Francis Tusa of Defence Analysis, the newsletter’s editor, called Protector “a pretty shameful programme”. He added: “If the specifications are changed after the contract has been signed, the costs will only go up.”

Tusa said that the war in Ukraine had demonstrated drones should be disposable. He asked if the price of “a system that costs tens or even hundreds of millions per pop” was one they were willing to pay.

The MoD stated: “All procurements are done with the best value in mind for taxpayers.” The MoD upgraded Protector’s primary sensor to enhance its battlefield capabilities above and beyond what was initially planned, which led to an increase in the original programme costs.

General Atomics has not responded to any requests for comment.