Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton UAS (unmanned aerial system) has been deployed to Guam by the U.S. Navy as part of an early operational capability (EOC) for the platform. The aim of the deployment is to further develop concepts of operation for the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system, as well as to enhance fleet learning for maintenance and operation.
The two Tritons currently deployed to Guam are in the integrated functional capability three configuration (IFC-3), or the baseline configuration of the system. As part of Triton’s roadmap to replace the EP-3 Aries as the Navy’s multi-intelligence maritime ISR platform, the system will be upgraded with a robust signals intelligence capability in the IFC-4 configuration.
Two Triton aircraft located at Naval Air Station Patuxent River are also currently being upgraded to the IFC-4 configuration along with other assets located at Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale Aircraft Integration Center. The Patuxent River aircraft are the first two to be brought into the IFC-4 configuration for use in the flight test program, with the first aircraft already conducting post-upgrade tests.
Doug Shaffer, vice president of Triton programs at Northrop Grumman, commented: “Triton is quickly providing vital information to operational users. This game-changing, persistent system is going to revolutionize the Navy’s maritime ISR capabilities by providing an unprecedented amount of data to inform critical decision making.”
While the inaugural deployment and ensuing EOC declaration are critical milestones, Northrop Grumman’s Triton program has faced challenges in 2020. The Department of Defense’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a two-year production pause on Triton in 2021 and 2022, posing a significant risk to the program’s ability to keep costs low and deliveries on track.
Shaffer continued: “A two-year gap in production would have significant negative effects on the production line and the supplier base. A pause would mean we risk losing the lessons learned that have enabled our suppliers and Northrop Grumman to achieve production efficiencies and get to this mature point of the program, which would then add more risks and costs to the program. We estimate that stopping and restarting the line alone will cost roughly $150 million and then each aircraft likely costs about $20 million more. Consequently, we are talking to Congress and our Navy customer about opportunities to sustain the production line, protect our suppliers and support the program long-term.”
Australia is part of a cooperative development program with the U.S. Navy for the Triton program and was key in the requirements development phase of the system. The Royal Australian Air Force will acquire a Triton system that will be identical to the U.S. Navy’s, enabling Australia to establish a ‘sixth orbit’, adding to the U.S. Navy’s planned five operational orbits around the globe to maintain surveillance in some of the most strategically important locations.
The Australian National Security Committee (NSC) has already announced approval for acquisition of three Triton aircraft, two main operating bases (MOB) and a forward operating base (FOB). Australia is currently scheduled to receive the first aircraft in late 2023, and stands to receive another five by 2025 if the NSC opts to approve the remainder of their program of record six (potentially seven) aircraft.
Shaffer added: “We have had multiple discussions with the U.S. Navy and Australia about options to help fill the FY ’21 and ’22 production lines with Australian aircraft. An acceleration of the Australian program would result in significant savings to Australia and ensure cost savings to the U.S. Navy by helping prevent a pause in Triton production. While any decision to accelerate the Australian program is between the U.S. Navy and Australia, we are prepared to provide the necessary support to an accelerated Australian program.”
“2020 has been, and will continue to be, a year of significant milestones for Triton. Our partnerships with the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Air Force have been crucial in shaping the future of this program, and Triton will have a significant impact on the future of both forces’ approach to mission execution.”