The Commonwealth has announced it will acquire a second Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high altitude long endurance maritime unmanned ISR air vehicle.
The March 27 announcement by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and Minister for Defence Industry Linda Reynolds follows the June 2018 Gate 2 milestone for Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B for the first of six Tritons for the RAAF.
“The Triton – which will complement our manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft – will significantly enhance our anti-submarine warfare and maritime strike capability as well as our ability to monitor and secure Australia’s maritime approaches,” Minister Pyne said in a statement.
“These capabilities help us protect our maritime area from threats such as people smuggling, and the exploitation of our natural resources from activities like illegal fishing. The Tritons will also be able to undertake enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks to support whole-of-government operations.”
The Gate 1 announcement outlined a $1.4 billion program cost that covered the first aircraft, and included $364 million for the construction of new operational and support facilities at RAAF bases Edinburgh and Tindal, and an initial ground support equipment, training and spares package.
It also included a $200 million investment in the US Navy-led Triton co-operative development program which will give Australia a seat at the table for future capability enhancements for the Triton, including the ‘Multi-INT’ signals intelligence package.
So while the Triton maintenance, training and data processing capabilities will be home-based at Edinburgh, operational air vehicles are likely to be forward deployed to Tindal or other locations closer to Australia’s northern maritime approaches.
Northrop Grumman established a Triton Mission Systems Trainer (MST) at Edinburgh in 2016 and has steadily upgraded it so RAAF Surveillance Response Group (SRG) and other ADF agencies can familiarise themselves with the system and can develop concepts of operation.
Australia has long-held an interest in acquiring an unmanned maritime ISR system to work in conjunction with the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidon, 12 of a projected 15 which have been ordered under Project AIR 7000 Phase 2.
The government confirmed its interest in acquiring the Triton by announcing in May 2013 that it had issued a Letter of Request (LOR) seeking further information from the US. A ministerial statement said the LOR would give Australia access to detailed information on the US Navy’s Triton, but emphasised that the release of an LOR had not yet committed Australia to purchasing the system.
In early 2014 the then new Abbott government gave the First Pass (Gate 1) approval to acquire Triton, but the long-term schedule for the program remained somewhat ambiguous. Meanwhile, the 2013 Defence White Paper had committed to eight Boeing P-8A Poseidons, the first of which arrived in November 2016.
The most recent Defence White Paper published in early 2016 upped the number of P-8As from eight to 12 and added three more options, and also confirmed the acquisition of seven MQ-4C Tritons.
Ongoing delays to the US Navy’s Triton development program and subsequent delays to moving from low rate to multi-year production of the aircraft are likely making the ADF cautious in its acquisition strategy of the system, hence the drip-feed order process of one aircraft at a time.
While the Government has since apparently revised the AIR 7000 Phase 1B requirement down to six Tritons, industry and Defence sources believe at least seven and possibly more air vehicles will be acquired as the system matures and its capabilities are integrated with those of the wider ADF and allied forces in the region.
The ADF’s maritime area of responsibility lies midway between two of the US Navy’s five global Triton operating locations on Guam in the western Pacific, and the Persian Gulf region, and so RAAF Tritons will likely be frequently tasked to cover the eastern Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean, and south-western Pacific maritime domains.
The first aircraft is currently scheduled to be delivered to the RAAF in 2023, and it is likely RAAF air vehicle operators and the initial uniformed and industry maintenance cadres will be embedded with a US Navy squadron before then in order to build the capability up prior to delivery.
The US Navy was scheduled to commence an early operational capability with three Triton air vehicles from Anderson AFB on Guam late last year, but this has been further delayed following a belly landing of one of the aircraft at NAS Ventura County north of Los Angeles last September and a grounding period during the subsequent investigation.
The aircraft was performing a test mission when it experienced a mechanical issue and was directed to return to the base. “As a precautionary measure, the pilots shut down the engine and attempted to safely land the aircraft on the runway,” a US Navy statement to the US Naval Institute (USNI) read at the time. “The aircraft’s landing gear did not deploy, and the aircraft landed on the runway with its landing gear retracted.”
In a subsequent statement to ADBR, a defence spokesman said, “The AIR7000-1B (Triton) Project Office and RAAF have been kept informed of the situation by the US Navy, including preliminary findings of the investigation. Defence does not expect the investigation to have an impact on the overall AIR7000-1B (Triton) schedule.”
Despite being scheduled for “early 2019”, and with base development works are well underway, it is believed the Commonwealth and US Navy are yet to sign an acquisition contract for the first RAAF MQ-4C.