Triton Will Test Navy’s Commitment to Drones
The Navy will soon deploy its most sophisticated spy drone to date. If all goes as planned, the aircraft will begin flying trial missions over the next three years, before full production begins later this decade.
The plane, called the MQ-4C Triton, is one of the Navy’s largest financial commitments yet to unmanned aviation. The $11 billion program would fund 70 aircraft, and would put the Navy is a position to conduct high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance missions that so far only have been performed by the U.S. Air Force.
The 47-foot long, 130-foot wingspan Triton, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., looks like the Air Force’s Global Hawk, although Navy officials insist that it is an entirely different aircraft because it is engineered to operate in the maritime environment and will be equipped with more advanced radar and video cameras.
An upcoming “first flight” of the Triton is viewed as a pivotal event because it would help solidify Navy and Defense Department support for the program. At $189 million per aircraft, the Triton has been criticized as an unaffordable luxury in a time of declining defense budgets. And that price could go even higher if Congress agrees to let the Air Force stop buying Global Hawks Block 30 variants. The Air Force had planned to buy 31 but decided to terminate the program at 18. Three of them are operated by the Navy under a program called “broad area maritime surveillance.” BAMS aircraft were shipped to the Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Middle East in 2008 for a six-month trial, and have been flying ever since. The aircraft received rave reviews from naval commanders, which led to the Navy’s decision to acquire its own fleet of maritime drones. In July 2010, the Air Force and the Navy signed an agreement to combine the training, maintenance and support of the BAMS and Global Hawk fleets.
The Air Force backing away from Block 30 “does present a risk of cost increases to Triton due to decreased rates of production,” said a March report by the Government Accountability Office. “The program office is continuing to assess the effects of the Block 30 cancellation and is evaluating these risks for future budgets.”
Vice Adm. Mark Skinner, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, downplayed the impact of the Air Force’s decision. “It is not going to be enough to derail the Navy's purchase of Triton,” he said March 6 at an industry conference.
Skinner said he is less worried about the cost than he is about “getting the technology right.”
GAO auditors noted that the program “poses a significant software development challenge, with nearly eight million lines of code, more than 20 percent of which will be new.” Integration and testing of this code is taking longer than expected, said the report. Delays in the manufacturing of the aircraft wing and software corrections are the primary reasons the operational assessment and production decision has slipped to October 2013.
Northrop Grumman’s $1.1 billion 2008 contract for the development phase includes five aircraft. The company agreed to purchase an extra aircraft with its own funds so it could perform additional tests. Two Tritons so far have been built.
“The long pole in the tent is to get to first flight,” said Skinner. That flight is now scheduled to take place this spring, according to Randy Secor, Triton unmanned aircraft system program director at Northrop Grumman. “First flight entails a systems checkout to ensure everything is working properly,” Secor told National Defense in an email. There will be additional flight tests to mature the aircraft before it is sent to Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Md., later this year.
Secor said the company made software improvements to Triton’s flight control systems in preparation for the upcoming test. “We are confident that we’ll be in a good position to be successful throughout the development and demonstration efforts,” he said.
Skinner said he commended Northrop Grumman for focusing attention on the test aircraft so it can perform an actual “first flight” and not just a photo op. “They would have done a ‘media first flight’ eight months ago,” said Skinner. “They want to do multiple flights. Not just fly, take a picture, and park it for six months. That's a high bar.”
Cost growth in aviation programs is not unusual, said Skinner. “We'll handle software development cost overruns by delaying production and converting production money into development.”
Despite Triton's considerable price tag, the Navy views its investment as a tradeoff because it would be buying fewer manned aircraft. The plan is to deploy the UAVs along with the Navy’s new manned surveillance plane, the P-8A Poseidon. The goal is to purchase 117 Poseidons.
“We bought fewer P-8s because we were going to buy Tritons,” Skinner said.
But whether that tradeoff pays off remains to be seen, said David L. Rockwell, an industry analyst at the Teal Group. “Seventy Tritons might cost more than the P-8A fleet,” he said. Rockwell suggested the Triton program could be vulnerable to cuts if the aircraft does not perform well in coming tests. Northrop Grumman’s decision to buy an additional aircraft for test flights is a sign that the company is pulling out all the stops to ensure the program survives, said Rockwell. Triton production, he noted, would means decades’ worth of business.
Rockwell recalled the troubled history of the Global Hawk, whose original $10 million price tag soared to $100 million. After years defending the program, the Air Force had enough and decided to end it in 2012, although Congress has acted to keep it alive.
An industry source who agreed to discuss the program on condition of anonymity said the Navy is in a much better position to manage Triton costs than the Air Force was with Global Hawk because it bought all the technical data rights. That means the Navy owns the intellectual property and could lower costs by opening up Triton work to other contractors.
Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman, NAVAIR