The first of the RAAF’s Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Tritons will arrive in Australia in 2024, a year later than scheduled.
Although Northrop Grumman is planning to hand the first of a currently-planned six Tritons over to the Commonwealth on schedule in 2023, the commencement of infrastructure works required to operate the Triton from Australian bases had been put on hold, after the Trump administration cut funding for the US Navy Triton program in 2021.
“The production pause announced by the US Navy to their Triton program in early 2020 resulted in a delay to Defence proceeding to Public Works Committee in March 2020. This has resulted in delays as Defence works to complete the facilities design process and proceed to Public Works Committee in early 2022. Pending Parliamentary approval of the project, construction is expected to commence by mid-2022,” a Defence spokesperson told ADM.
“The facilities that are proposed for RAAF Base Edinburgh are working accommodation, operating facilities and supporting engineering services works. The RAAF Base Tindal facilities will include hangars and maintenance facilities, working accommodation, aircraft pavement works and supporting engineering services works. “
This raises the question of what the RAAF will do with the first aircraft for around 12 months, before works at the Triton’s main operating base for the ground segment at RAAF Base Edinburgh and the air vehicle forward operating base at RAAF Base Tindal are completed.
“While all options remain open to support Triton transition into service, to date there has been no change to the decision to base the MQ-4C Triton out of RAAF Base Tindal,” the spokesperson added.
ADM understands from sources close to the program that discussions are currently underway with the US Navy for the first Australian Triton to work alongside its American counterparts. It is worth noting that the US Navy has two Triton aircraft currently forward-deployed on Guam.
The aircraft on Guam are the first two Tritons to be forward-deployed and are operating across the US Navy 7th Fleet’s area of responsibility, providing essential maritime ISR. According to one senior US Navy officer, the aircraft are performing “better than expected,” despite being in a baseline configuration.
It is further understood that the program, being delivered under Air 7000 Phase 1B, is still planned to achieve Final Operational Capability (FOC) on schedule in the 2025-2026 timeframe.
By the numbers
Australia has a stated requirement for six Tritons under Air 7000/1B, with an option for a seventh aircraft allocated within the 2016 Defence White Paper, but has only contracted for three aircraft at this point in time. The other two aircraft under the existing contracts are expected to be delivered in 2023 and 2024.
A follow-on contract for one or more aircraft and expected in early 2021, has not yet eventuated - possibly due to the two-year freeze on Triton production imposed by the US President’s fiscal 2021 budget (PB21) last March. The US Government has since reinstated funding for one Triton aircraft, which will help to bridge the funding shortfall, but the initial hiatus is understood to have also disrupted funding for development of the Triton’s IFC4 - or Multi-Intelligence (Multi-INT) capability, which is also the configuration required by the RAAF.
“Government has approved the acquisition of three Triton aircraft and supporting systems, of the currently planned fleet of six. The acquisition of further aircraft is subject to future Government consideration,” the Defence spokesperson explained.
“The Triton and P-8A Poseidon capabilities will operate in a complementary way to deliver a comprehensive Maritime Patrol and Response capability. Government continues to review the future balance between the Triton and Poseidon, and other capabilities cognisant of emerging technological and strategic change.”
In related news, Northrop Grumman is this month celebrating the 20th anniversary of first deployment to Australia of an RQ-4A Global Hawk. The first high-altitude long endurance (HALE) Global Hawk, appropriately named “Southern Cross II” for the occasion, was the first unmanned aircraft to cross the Pacific Ocean non-stop and was flown into RAAF Edinburgh in April 2001. The aircraft also took part in the bilateral ‘Tandem Thrust’ exercise over the Coral Sea during its stay in Australia and the experience gained has been used to evolve the Air 7000 maritime UAS requirement. Australia subsequently joined a co-operative program with the US Navy to match Triton to its specific requirements.
“That 20-year anniversary is significant; when you look back on that time, Australia’s ability to help shape Global Hawk into Triton has been substantial. I think what we now have in the Triton capability is extraordinary and totally matched – probably better matched to the Australian circumstance in some respects than any other nation, given the vast areas we have to provide surveillance over and respond to,” commented Northrop Grumman Australia chief executive Chris Deeble.
“It is a great opportunity for us in the future to evolve the capability with different payloads, best matched to the speed of the threat, so that we can respond accordingly into the future – noting the very complex, ambiguous and rapidly-changing environment in which we find ourselves in Australia.”
Details of this historic flight can also be seen in the April/May edition of ADM available here.