The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is expecting to receive the first of six new MQ-4C TRITON remotely piloted air vehicles (RPA) in 2023 under its AIR7000 phase 1B programme. Full operational capability is slated for 2025.
Australia signed a cooperative programme contract with the US in June 2018 worth A$1.4 billion for the initial procurement of a single TRITON RPA and ground segments and equipment that will be installed at two bases RAAF Edinburgh and RAAF Tindall. Group Captain Jason Lind, Director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Space at RAAF HQ told MON at the Avalon Air Show that the total programme acquisition cost is in the region of A$3-4 billion with a further $2 billion for through-life sustainment.
Although the Australian government has committed to a total of six RPAs it has yet to decide when to proceed with the procurement of further aircraft, but Capt Lind said that it will be in small increments of single or pairs of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) because of the developmental nature of the aircraft in the US.
The concept of operations (CONOPs) are still being formulated so it is not clear how many aircraft will be based at Edinburgh and Tindall. A seventh UAV is under consideration as an, “attrition purchase,” under Australia’s Integrated Investment Plan.
The initial $1.4 billion contract includes $364 million for infrastructure and facilities at the two bases and a further $200 million is for Australia’s inclusion in the RAN/US Navy (USN) cooperation programme with the US. Northrop Grumman is the Original Equipment Manufacturer of TRITON. Capt Lind said that the cooperation agreement is an, “excellent delivery vehicle,” for TRITON, which as a 5th Generation platform is intended to use Augmented Intelligence and advanced networking to work alongside other RAN maritime patrol assets, such as the new P-8A POSEIDON Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and Distributed Ground Station Australian (DGS-Aus).
The cooperation agreement is an advanced version of a US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) agreement that means that the RAN has invested early in the TRITON programme and are a closer partner rather than being just a consumer. Capt Lind said the benefits of this approach, “means we share risk but also reward, we will be able to get capabilities earlier and have more influence for things that are unique to Australia as it is developing.”
Eight cooperative programme personnel that are embedded as part of the USN-led team that will provide good results further along the procurement path. This approach has been used before with Australia’s P-8A acquisition that was largely on time and to budget so the RAN wants to replicate this success.
“It is the networking that we are more interested in and how that works with human-mahcine augmentation, using the combat cloud and pulling information using machines to improve our decision-superiority, it is a key tenant within our 5th generation air force for maritime patrol and defence,” Capt Lind said.
Doug Shaffer, Vice President of the TRITON programme at Northrop Grumman, said that TRITON is about more than just the platform, but the end user and, “dissemination of that data from a variety of products on the EO sensor suite for hi-res imagery, full motion video, automatic information and detection systems giving the intent of every vessel on the ocean, the MFAS radar that detects those things.”
The networking element that will allow the dissemination of the information is one of the riskier parts of the programme. Group Captain Martin Nussio, TRITON Programme Director of ISR at Australia’s CASG procurement organisation said it had been done with P-8A so whilst networking is easy he said, “the hard bit is making sure it is protected,” and the users only get the information they are allowed to view and, “it takes time to get it right.”
The USN is buying the TRITON Multi-Int variant capability under a Milestone C acquisition in 2016 and NG is onto its fourth LRIP contract, and the company has submitted its proposal for long lead items for a fifth LRIP. Mr Schaffer said that the first Australian UAV will be part of this batch of aircraft. When Australia orders further sets of aircraft these will be inserted into future LRIP production runs.