Katherine Ziesing | CAnberra
News recently that the US Navy (USN) could decrease the number of Triton platforms that it eventually purchases has both pros and cons, depending on who you are.
The system is “more reliable” than anticipated and fewer aircraft are expected to be lost to attrition, according to a service official.
Captain Jim Hoke, persistent maritime unmanned aircraft systems program manager, told reporters on 23 September that the program of record for Triton has a planned buy of 68 air vehicles.
The USN needs 20 aircraft in the fleet each year to meet Triton’s planned operational orbits.
Four aircraft are needed to fulfil one orbit with the Navy accounting for five orbit regions around the globe, he explained.
The additional Tritons the USN expected to buy would have accounted for an expected attrition rate that now appears to be lower than planned.
CAPT Hoke believes the program-of-record buy will be reduced because of the unexpected reliability of the Triton system.
The Triton has been under development by the US Navy since 2008 and is scheduled to achieve Initial Operational Capability with the USN in 2017.
However, a further statement from the US Naval Air System office on the program confirmed that the order for 68 platforms is still firm.
The US program currently has one Triton platform at Pax River with another two platforms due to arrive for further testing by the end of the month.
This year the Prime Minister announced that the government had committed to the acquisition of the Triton unmanned aircraft system (UAS), subject to the successful completion of the USN development program currently under way.
Australia did have a formal relationship with the US program but this was paused in 2007/2008 by the government of the day due to risk aversion and the belief that the RAAF would not have the capability to introduce both the P-8A and the Triton in the same timeframe.
Defence sources are now confident that this issue has been addressed.
The 2012 DCP had revealed plans to bring forward by three years the acquisition of “high altitude, long endurance” unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The Prime Minister did not specify the number of Tritons the government will acquire or their planned entry-into-service date, saying those details will be outlined in the 2015 defence white paper and decided in 2016.
The Australian program is understood to go to second pass once the USN declares IOC, notionally in 2017.
At this stage, the working plan seems to be seven platforms in the air by 2019, ADM understands.
This timeline is complicated by the fact the window for the Commonwealth to make a decision between creating an alliance type structure versus an FMS case down the track is closing quickly.
Triton program prime Northrop Grumman is currently working with the USN to finesse the latest set of requirements for the next block of the Triton.
“Australian fingerprints are all over Triton already,” Dennis Hayden, Northrop Grumman’s program executive for the Australian Triton explained to ADM.
“Australia is the reason that Triton already has a 360-degree radar, de-icing, more robust wings and collision avoidance technologies.
“We now have over 100,000 hours on the HALE (high altitude long endurance) enterprise,” Hayden said, explaining that this enterprise includes work with Global Hawk and 13,000 hours with BAMS-D (demonstrator) itself.
Most of the BAMS-D hours have been with the USN’s 5th fleet carrier group in the Gulf.
Operations are now at the point where the fleet will not move unless Triton is in the air.
The next block upgrade is to the mission system on a proven platform.
The DMO, DSTO and RAAF now have access to the exact same modelling information as the USN when it comes to manned/unmanned force mix and sustainment of Triton.
This means that the Australian program office can start making some real headway into how they intend to procure, man and sustain the Triton capability.
The RAAF plans to operate 92 Wing (currently flying P-3s) with the exact same manning as they have in place now.
They will fly the same missions and possess the same skill sets with specific technology training for Triton.
“Triton is going to be powerful for the RAAF particularly for situational awareness.
"The situational awareness out to 300 miles in all directions will be a game changer.
"Even the USN is still coming to grips with the implications.
"The ability of the platform to act in a number of roles, from ISR to a comms relay node, is still be explored,” Hayden said.
As a former P-3 operator with the USN, Hayden has first hand experience in the roles that the USN will be undertaking and is confident that Triton will meet the needs of the customer.
As mentioned earlier, Australia paused their relationship with the USN in 2007/2008 after the government decided to delay this phase of Air 7000.
Restarting this relationship is more than possible but has to be done in a timely way that complements the US program office.
The difference between a cooperative arrangement rather than an FMS further down the line could mean a vast difference in timing.
Should the Commonwealth follow the cooperative path, platforms would be available in Block 3 rather than Block 5.
This could see delivery in 2018 rather than 2022 or beyond.
It would mean more funds and risk up front but the Commonwealth would avoid the FMS premium and any capability gap in the mission set the Triton would fulfil for both the RAAF and RAN.
Other nations such as Germany and the UK have shown interest in Triton, with Hayden admitting that they are not alone in their interest and the company has been supporting other potential export efforts by the USN ‘as directed’.
ADM understands that Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale manufacturing facility has surge capacity should more orders come together but the opportunity for Australian industry to get involved would need to happen sooner rather than later.
Northrop Grumman’s Global Supply Chain office are looking at ways to include Australian industry where possible on the US program.
Hayden admitted that there are a number of companies and universities being examined under this process already.
However, should the commonwealth take the FMS route for Triton, further opportunities for Australian industry to compete against firmly entrenched US suppliers would diminish rapidly given political considerations in play in the US.