• Credit: US Navy
    Credit: US Navy

The US Navy conducted its first test flight of the MQ-4C Triton in its upgraded hardware and software configuration on July 29 at NAS Patuxent River, beginning the next phase of the unmanned aircraft’s development.

The MQ-4C Triton flew in its new configuration, known as Integrated Functional Capability (IFC)-4, which will bring an enhanced multi-mission sensor capability as part of the US Navy’s Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (MISR&T) transition plan.

Australia is slated to acquire at least three and possibly seven Triton aircraft in the IFC-4 configuration. In US Navy service, the Triton is designed to replace the Lockheed P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (and complement the Boeing P-8A Poseidon). It will also replace the US Navy EP-3E Aeries signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, meaning the aircraft will provide Australia with a significant SIGINT capability beyond that offered by the current AP-3C (EW) Orions and future MC-55A Peregrine fleets.

Triton's Integrated Test Team (ITT) comprised of the US Navy, Australian cooperative partners, and government/industry teams completed a functional check flight and initial aeromechanical test points, demonstrating stability and control of the MQ-4C after a 30-month modification period.

The IFC-4 configuration has sensors which include a Northrop Grumman AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) X-band electronically scanned surveillance radar under the fuselage, Raytheon AN/DAS-3 electro-optic, infra-red (EO/IR) sensor under the nose, Automatic Identification System (AIS) and a Sierra Nevada AN/ZLQ-1 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) payload for SIGINT gathering.

“Today’s flight is a significant milestone for the program and a testament to the resolve of the entire ITT, their hard work, and passion for test execution and program success,” Captain Dan Mackin, Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems program manager, said. “This flight proves that the program is making significant progress toward Triton’s advanced multi-intelligence upgrade and it brings us closer to achieving the initial operational capability (IOC) milestone.”

Multiple Triton assets have been modified into the IFC-4 configuration in support of IOC in 2023. A single test asset is in the current IFC-3 configuration to support sustainment of deployed systems as well as risk reduction for IFC-4.

Currently, two MQ-4C Triton aircraft in the baseline configuration known as IFC-3 are forward deployed to the US 7th Fleet in support of early operational capability and Commander Task Force (CTF)-72 tasking. VUP-19 will operate Triton to further develop the concept of operations and fleet learning associated with operating a high-altitude, long-endurance system in the maritime domain.

“The MQ-4C Triton has already had a tremendous positive impact on operations in USINDOPACOM and will continue to provide unprecedented maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities which are especially critical to national interests with the increased focus in the Pacific,” Mackin said.

Triton is the first high altitude, long endurance aircraft that can conduct persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions to complement the P-8 in the maritime domain. The US Navy plans to deploy Triton to five orbits worldwide.

To add some perspective to Triton’s capabilities in an Australian context, Northrop Grumman says it is capable of establishing a ten-hour orbit in the Southern Ocean, south of Heard Island, from a base in mainland Australia in a single mission. Put another way, the manufacturer says this translates to similar orbits north of Guam, or east of Fiji, in the Pacific Ocean.

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.

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