In January, the USN deployed Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C TRITON to Guam, marking the first deployment of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) maritime ISR system. This is part of an early operational capability (EOC) and will enable the Navy to further develop concepts of operation for employment of the system in the maritime environment, as well as fleet learning for operating and maintaining the platform.
The USN declared the system as EOC in early May, and acknowledged TRITON is already becoming an “invaluable asset.” Two aircraft have flown more than 765 hours during the deployment. “TRITON is quickly providing vital information to operational users,” commented Doug Shaffer, VP Triton Programmes at Northrop Grumman. “This game-changing, persistent system is going to revolutionise 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, the programme has faced challenges in 2020. DoD’s budget request for FY2021 includes a two-year production pause on TRITON in 2021-2022, posing a significant risk to the ability to keep costs low and deliveries on track. “A two-year gap in production would have significant negative effects on the production line and the supplier base,” Shaffer explained. “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 programme, which would then add more risks and costs […] 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 programme long-term.”
Australia’s National Security Committee (NSC) announced approval for acquisition of the first TRITON aircraft, one main operating base (MOB) and a forward operating base (FOB), in June 2018. A second Australian aircraft was authorised in March 2019, and a third, with additional MOB, in June 2020, at which time all pertinent contracts for three aircraft, two MOB and one FOB were finalized. Currently scheduled to receive its first TRITON in late 2023, Australia stands to receive all six of their aircraft by 2025 – if the NSC opts to approve the remainder of its programme of record six (potentially seven) aircraft by the end of 2020. Northrop Grumman is currently scheduled to begin production of Australia’s first aircraft in October.
For both the US and Australia, TRITON will represent a massive leap in available maritime ISR capability. At a time of regional tensions in the Pacific and South East Asia, TRITON’s ability to see more, hear more and share more has never been so valuable.
The two aircraft currently deployed to Guam are in the integrated functional capability three configuration (IFC-3) – 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 SIGINT capability in the IFC-4 configuration. Two aircraft at NAS Patuxent River are currently being upgraded to the IFC-4 configuration, along with other assets located at the company’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 programme, with the first already conducting post-upgrade tests.
“2020 has been, and will continue to be, a year of significant milestones for TRITON,” concluded Shaffer. “Our partnerships with the US Navy and Royal Australian Air Force have been crucial in shaping the future of this programme, and TRITON will have a significant impact on the future of both forces’ approach to mission execution.”