The RAAF’s planned acquisition of six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned high-altitude long-endurance maritime ISR systems is potentially at risk due to the reallocation of programmed US Navy production funding, and reported delays in the development of the planned integrated functional capability (IFC) 4.0 version of the aircraft.
Originally approved through a Gate 1 process in 2014, Triton was selected under Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B to complement the RAAF’s planned 12-15 AIR 7000 Phase 2 Boeing P-8A Poseidons to conduct long-range surveillance of Australia’s maritime approaches. The RAAF’s planned manned-unmanned maritime surveillance model closely matches that planned for the US Navy, which currently has programs of record for 132 P-8As and 68 MQ-4Cs, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.
The RAAF is acquiring the Triton through a A$200 million development, production and sustainment cooperative program with the US Navy which gives the RAAF input into system and sensor operating modes and development. To this end, at least eight RAAF and Australian Defence personnel are embedded within the US Navy’s Triton project office at NAS Patuxent (Pax) River near Washington DC to work on the aircraft’s development.
To date, the ADF has committed about A$1.7 billion to AIR 7000 Phase 1B, being for an initial two air vehicles, the $200 million co-operative program commitment, the construction of facilities at RAAF bases Edinburgh and Tindal, and supporting information technology infrastructure. The project has a total budget of between A$3 billion and A$4 billion.
But the new uncertainty follows the draft FY2021 President’s Budget which shows the Pentagon’s Department of Navy has allocated no funding to Triton production Lots 6 and 7 in FY 2021 and FY 2022, after just 14 of the planned 68 US Navy Tritons will have been delivered.
Indeed, ADBR understands that the planned US$400m from these two years of the programmed Triton Lot 6 and Lot 7 production funding will be diverted elsewhere, with about half of it to bolster IFC4 development, and the balance to be part of the Pentagon’s contribution to building President Trump’s border wall.
“The United States President’s 2021 budget proposes to significantly increase funding for the multi-intelligence configuration of the MQ-4C Triton aircraft system, known as IFC-4,” Northrop Grumman Australia Chief Executive AVM Chris Deeble (Ret’d) told ADBR in a February 28 statement. The budget also proposes pausing production of Triton in 2021 and 2022 while the development of IFC-4 is completed.”
It’s important to note the draft US budget is just that, a draft. With elements within Congress pushing back against the stripping of DoD funding for the border wall, the budget isn’t expected to be signed off anytime soon, adding further uncertainty to production planning.
“Defence is aware of the United States (US) Administration’s budget request to Congress, which includes a proposed pause on Triton production funding for two years until 2023,” a February 28 Defence statement to the ABC reads. “It is important to note that this request is not the final US Defense budget.
“The US Congress plays a significant role in the US budget process and will consider the President’s request as it prepares budget legislation for 2021,” the Defence statement adds. “Until the legislation is approved, the pause on Triton funding is not confirmed.”
On top of the baseline IFC3 configuration currently in service, the US Navy has already contracted Northrop Grumman for more than US$80m for IFC4 development through four separate awards since July 2018. But that development is reportedly lagging and requires additional funding.
The IFC4 configuration is planned to incorporate the Northrop Grumman-developed ‘multi-intelligence’ (MULTI-INT) package which will incorporate signals (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) capabilities more advanced than the US Navy’s current Lockheed EP-3E Aries version of the P-3 Orion. IFC4 is considered by the RAAF to be its required baseline configuration, as is the incorporation of automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) which ADBR understands is also at risk of delays.
In conjunction with the Triton’s maritime AN/ZPY-3 multi-function active sensor (MFAS) radar and multi-spectral targeting system-B (MTS-B) electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensors and satellite communication (SATCOM), MULTI-INT will give the system an incredibly capable real-time, high-altitude maritime surveillance capability across multiple spectrums.
The diversion or deferral of US Navy Lot 6 and 7 production funding could mean RAAF Tritons planned for manufacture in these lots will be more expensive due to reduced production numbers, and also adds doubts that the US Navy will continue with the Triton program at all after the production halt. To this end, Australia is seeking assurances from the US Navy that it remains committed to the Triton program.
“Australia is currently discussing the impact of the Triton production pause with the US Navy and Northrop Grumman,” Defence says. “As a cooperative partner in the Triton program, the Department is working closely with both the US Navy and Northrop Grumman to understand impacts on Australia’s Maritime Patrol Program.”
AVM Deeble added, “The Triton industry team recognises that pausing production would have a negative impact on the timely delivery of this capability to the warfighter, and we are committed to working with various stakeholders to sustain Triton production and ensure our US and Australian customers receive this critical capability.”
To mitigate any cost increases due to reduced production, the RAAF has reportedly been asked to take the US Navy’s deferred Lot 6 and Lot 7 production slots. While this could reduce or maintain the cost of Australia’s aircraft, the RAAF would need to be ready to take these aircraft earlier than the current planned funding profile and operational introduction schedule.
“The proposed production pause may represent an opportunity for the Australian government to bring the Triton capability forward, while ensuring affordability,” said AVM Deeble. “Production slots opened up by the US Navy could potentially be filled by Australian aircraft. This would ensure earlier delivery of assets to Australia while protecting affordability for both Australia and the United States.”
Coupled with delays to the MULTI-INT development, this could mean early RAAF Tritons might also require a later hardware or software retrofit, adding further cost to, and reducing capability from, the RAAF’s planned schedule. But with the additional funding allocated to the completion of IFC4, the planned schedule to complete its development in early 2022 should precede completion of the RAAF’s first airframes by about one year.
As a consequence of the US budget uncertainty, Defence has reportedly been asked to submit three options to the Defence Investment Committee (IC) in early March on how to proceed on the program: to take the US Navy production slots; to delay the program by an estimated two years until US production ramps up; or to abandon the Triton program altogether. Regardless of which option is recommended by the IC, this will either require additional funding and/or approval by the National Security Committee of Cabinet.
If the decision is taken to abandon the program, the RAAF might have to consider alternative capabilities such as additional manned P-8As, MC-55A Peregrine ISR aircraft, or perhaps a maritime ISR version of the unmanned General Atomics Sky Guardian that will be introduced under Project AIR 7003.
The IFC4 delay adds to other Triton program schedule delays, including the planned early operational capability (EOC) of two Tritons on the island of Guam. Originally scheduled for early 2018, the Guam deployment was subsequently delayed to late 2018 and then late 2019, but didn’t actually occur until January 2020.
“The Triton program is progressing well, with two aircraft now in Guam representing the first operational deployment of Triton, allowing the system to provide vital maritime ISR capabilities in one of the world’s vital trade regions,” AVM Deeble said. “These two aircraft are the first in what is planned to be a 68 aircraft fleet providing critical 24/7 maritime surveillance for the US Navy around the globe.”