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The cost of the British army’s new armed drones has risen by more than 40%, partly because the Ministry of Defense tried to save budget two years ago.

The cost of buying and operating a fleet of 16 US-made Protector drones has risen to £1.76bn, according to official figures, up from a total life-cycle cost of £1.25bn estimated in 2016.

The additional costs of the scheme have been revealed in ministerial responses to a series of written parliamentary questions asked by the opposition Labor Party in recent months.

Documents show that the Ministry of Defense decided in 2021 to delay the program by two years, allowing the department to claim unspecified in-year savings, which increased the total cost by £187 million.

Other issues that drive up costs include late revisions to the drone’s specifications, which involve changing its main sensors to avoid future obsolescence.

The drone, manufactured by General Atomics in the United States, has a wingspan of 24 meters, which is larger than most business jets. It is equipped with sensors for surveillance and targeting and is armed with 500-pound laser-guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles capable of hitting fast-moving vehicles.

The protector was originally expected to be operational by the end of the past decade, but has been delayed several times. It is expected to be operational by the end of next year, but ministers have yet to confirm when it will be declared fully operational.

It will replace the RAF’s existing Reaper drones, which have been involved in controversial targeted strikes in Syria, including the killing of a British jihadist in 2015.

As a result of the delays, the MoD is spending £49 million to extend the life of the existing Reaper system, a cost the government said it would offset through funding previously allocated to the Protector programme.

The MoD’s latest review of its mega-project has given the scheme an “amber” confidence rating, warning it still faces “significant challenges”.

Labour’s shadow defense secretary John Healey said the rising cost of Predator was an example of a “broken” Defense Department procurement system and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Conservative MP Marc Francois, a member of the House of Commons defense select committee and former defense minister, said Protector was “another in a long line of MoD procurement programs that have proven to be poor in terms of time and cost” very bad”.

This comes after serious problems arose with the £5.5 billion Ajax armored vehicle and the £3.2 billion Morpheus battlefield communications system.

Francois called on Grant Shapps, who was appointed defense secretary last month, to consider “massive reforms” to the way the Ministry of Defense acquires new systems.

Francis Tusa, editor of the Defense Analysis newsletter, said Protector was “a pretty disgraceful program”, adding: “If the specifications are changed after the contract is signed, the costs will only go up.”

Tusa added that the war in Ukraine showed that the demand for drones was a one-off. “This system costs tens of millions of pounds at a time. Is that a price you are willing to pay?” he asked.

The MoD said: “All procurement decisions are made with a view to providing the best value for the taxpayer. The MoD has upgraded the Protector’s main sensors to enhance its battlefield capabilities beyond initial plans, which resulted in increase in the cost of the original plan.”

General Atomics did not respond to a request for comment.


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