On September 18 the government made the announcement that a fourth remotely piloted Triton large uninhabited aerial system will be added to the RAAF inventory. This continues an unusual pattern of ordering the platforms one at a time rather than in larger batches. It makes sense to buy this one for several reasons, including that four of them is the minimum number needed to have an effective surveillance capability.
This is because during a mission, during a time of heightened alert, it would be smart to keep the area or zone of interest under constant surveillance – and because of Triton’s huge sensor footprint and 24-hour endurance that was one of the ideas behind its development. However, a single aircraft can only remain on station for a finite amount of time and if the surveillance mission is some distance from Australia, a replacement aircraft would be flying on its way there and the first aircraft would be on the way back to base to be refuelled and checked out.
Even a three-Triton fleet could not operate in that configuration for long because all aircraft – crewed and uninhabited – need regular maintenance, software updates and in this case time to download massive amounts of data. That looks like a minimum of four MQ-4Cs for any operational unit of – and not coincidentally that looks to be how the parent customer, the USN, plans to use them.
The wisdom of the decision has been questioned by some of Australia’s leading analysts, including Marcus Hellyer and Malcolm Davis, both well known to APDR. This negativity has also been reflecting in media coverage, with people focusing on their cost and the fact the USN is cutting back heavily on their numbers leading to the concern that the RAAF might be stuck with a very expensive orphan Triton fleet.
However, this pessimism does not seem fully justified. Rear Admiral Stephen Tedford, Program Executive Officer, Unmanned Aviation & Strike Weapons, U.S. Navy has released a statement saying:
“Triton is the only high-altitude aircraft in the world performing persistent uncrewed maritime ISR&T capability today, and well into the future.
“The MQ-4C Triton program has not been terminated. The U.S. Navy made decision to reduce FY24 quantity to two aircraft, which will bring the program of record to 27. This quantity reduction is based on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council re-evaluation of worldwide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting requirements that resulted in direction to reduce total MQ-4C deployable locations (orbits) from five to three.
“Triton’s 360-degree sensor suite integrated into an aircraft capable of extraordinary range, endurance and speed imparts a level of capability and operational flexibility never before possible. Persistent surveillance allows the prediction of an adversary’s behavior and enables better planning, greatly enhancing joint military responses and operations all without risking the lives of crew onboard. The U.S. Navy remains committed to the program as evidenced by the investment in the multi-intelligence upgrade pathway for Triton.
“We continue to work closely with Australia on aircraft procurement and will be delivering the first MQ-4C Triton to our partner nation in 2024.”
True, Triton is an expensive asset to acquire, maintain and operate. With the formal name of AIR 7000 Phase 1B, the project has a budget of $2.143 billion, of which $887 million has already been spent – and it will cost another $315 million this financial year. The first three Australian aircraft are in various stages of construction by Northrop Grumman at their super-secret Palmdale facility.
One of the reasons why the acquisition costs so much is that Triton requires specialised ground infrastructure in the form of TEMPEST- rated buildings and massive computing power to handle the huge amount of data being collected. There are facilities under development at both Tindal and Edinburgh air bases – but since these come as Government Furnished Equipment, they are likely to be: a) shockingly expensive; and b) produced to an unknown schedule.
When asked directly by APDR if the facilities would be ready on time for the first MQ-4C next year, Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy made a neat sidestep by saying that the aircraft would be supported from Edinburgh and Tindal. Yes, Minister.
Another cost driver is that Triton is an RPV, meaning that fully trained pilots on salaries and allowances have to operate them. With developments in AI, surely this is an anachronistic requirement that can be removed – with considerable savings in through life costs. Most of their missions involving clicking and dragging on an electronic chart at leisurely intervals, which hardly seems to warrant the involvement of a highly trained human able to survive 9G turns.
Prime contractor Northrop Grumman also has a view – understandably – on many of these matters and Tom Jones, corporate vice president, and president, Aeronautics Systems, Northrop Grumman said:
“The MQ-4C Triton program represents the most advanced maritime ISR&T capability being deployed today. Triton is budgeted to receive $1.3 billion (USD) in Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) funding over the next five years and the U.S. Navy has announced initial operating capability (IOC) for Triton just last week.
“Triton is the only high-altitude aircraft in the world performing persistent uncrewed maritime ISR&T capability today, not years from now. No other system can fully replace Triton’s capabilities – the range, persistence, and coverage area that it delivers is unmatched.
“Satellites are limited and predictable, offering intermittent coverage – which can miss – or misinterpret – actions. Manned reconnaissance aircraft only provide a limited ISR at the sacrifice of their other missions, such as Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) patrols. Persistent surveillance allows the prediction of an adversary’s behavior and enables better planning, greatly enhancing joint military responses and operations all without risking the lives of crew onboard.
“Survivability is a concern for all aircraft and is no more an issue for Triton than it is for other major aircraft system not designed specifically for highly contested environments. Triton has the benefit of not putting aircrews at risk. Additionally, Triton’s sensor suite, characterized by 360-degree Fields of Regard (FOR), integrated into an aircraft capable of extraordinary range, endurance and speed imparts a level of capability and operational flexibility never before possible.”
Some of the concerns about the vulnerability of Triton in a hostile environment seem based on the downing by Iran of an RQ-4A Global Hawk, the predecessor of Triton, on June 20, 2019. It was probably destroyed by an oldish but still effective S-125 mobile surface-to-air missile battery. As usual with these sorts of incidents with conflicting claims about whether the RPV was violating Iranian airspace.
A few broad observations can be made. Even though relations with Iran vary between tense and very tense it sounds as if no one on the US side was anticipating such a dramatic response. It seems likely that the Global Hawk was not flying at its maximum altitude of 40,000 feet – let alone the 60,000 feet that is typical for Triton. Many of these things are down to mission planning and during times of hostility all surveillance platforms would be operating outside the range of SAM batteries.
If under threat the best thing a Triton can do is run away – fast. After all it has a jet engine giving it a maximum speed of more than 600km/h – perhaps more in a shallow dive. During an operation, it is likely to be at 60,000 feet and 300km away from the nearest SAM site. As soon as a launch is detected it should head in the opposite direction – and given relative velocities it has every chance of outrunning all but the most modern weapons and might outlast even those.
On the point Mr Jones made about survivability, looking at the Australian inventory, aircraft such as the E-&A Wedgetail; KC-30A MRTT and the P-8A Poseidon are also unlikely to be deployed in a high threat environment. Even though they have defensive aids not found on Triton – in particular their Large Aircraft Infra-Red Countermeasures suites – they are nevertheless very large and relatively slow-moving targets. The same can probably said of the four less well-known M-555 Peregrine EW/SIGINT aircraft soon to be delivered to the RAAF.
Despite some not unreasonable concerns, it looks as if Triton will be in the USN inventory for many years to come. Given Australia’s huge maritime boundaries, we are legally obligated for monitoring around 13% of the world’s sea surface – and Tritons are one of the few platforms that can effectively do that.
In addition, we are reminded that Australia’s area of military interest goes far beyond that – way up to the South China Sea and in the other direction down to Antarctica. As we see Chinese interest growing in the Pacific – and in particular in the southwest region of that vast space – that is also becoming a high priority for effective monitoring.
The choice does not seem to be between Triton and satellites – or any other platform – but how all the technologies can be used cooperatively to maximise situational awareness. And that’s not even going into peacetime roles such as bushfire monitoring or cracking down on illegal fishing. The cost of ownership is going to be high, but it seems to be a price worth paying.