Navy's New Uncrewed Aircraft Ready to Perform, Expand Missions

By Laura Heckmann

Northrop Grumman photo

When the Navy and Northrop Grumman announced the MQ-4C Triton had reached initial operational capability in September, the declaration represented a milestone achievement in a 15-year journey toward the service’s first and only uncrewed, high-altitude aircraft.

While the journey is far from over, it took a long and winding development path.

First conceived in 2008, the Triton program was intended as one of a two-part replacement for the multi-intelligence reconnaissance aircraft EP-3E Aries — a variant of the maritime patrol aircraft P-3 Orion — alongside the patrol and reconnaissance aircraft P-8 Poseidon.

The plan was not a one-for-one aircraft replacement, but a reduced quantity of P-8s supplemented by Triton that would be “utilized predominantly for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance … but more focused on radar and [electro-optical/infrared] cameras,” Capt. Josh Guerre, program manager for the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office, said in an interview.

“So, taking pictures and using the radar to … provide surface surveillance function that was being done in the P-3,” with the P-8 “predominantly focused” on anti-submarine warfare, he said.

But the original Triton design — based on the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system — was missing something: signals intelligence capability, or the “boxes that would be utilized to collect signals intelligence,” Guerre explained.

The decision was made to have Northrop Grumman redesign the mission system to facilitate the incorporation of the signals intelligence boxes, an effort that began in 2016, and has been “worked on ever since,” he said.

The Triton model that has reached initial operational capability — referred to as the multi-intelligence IOC 4 configuration — is being pushed out to the Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Indo-Pacific region for initial deployment. “[Initial operational capability] is just us saying that the operational commander is taking a new aircraft or a new system, and for the first time it’s deploying that system to support the warfighter objectives,” he said.

The Triton is a “fully developed, multi-[intelligence] version” of the aircraft, with “those [signals intelligence] systems on board,” he said.

Rho Cauley Bruner, director of the Triton program at Northrop Grumman, described the aircraft’s capabilities as irreplaceable, noting other crewed systems provide limited sensing at the sacrifice of their other missions, such as anti-submarine warfare.

Triton’s long-range sensors allow it to detect, classify and track maritime targets “well outside the detection-shoot range of enemy ships and surface-to-air missiles,” with an operating altitude greater than 50,000 feet and endurance of 24 hours, she added. Triton’s multi-function active sensor radar can survey an area “greater than the size of China in one 24-hour mission.”

The aircraft will be employed in areas of “particular interest” to combatant commanders to pull data that will be utilized for real-time tactical decision-making, Guerre said. Additionally, datasets will be fed back to intelligence analysts for strategic decision-making.

“It’s utilized really as just a tool in a toolbox to pull data to help the operational commander make decisions,” Guerre said.

Triton’s upgraded toolkit is also the primary reason behind the delayed and altered schedule. The program’s timeline was altered as recently as last year, and will likely continue to be, Guerre said.

As a result of Triton’s new multi-intelligence capabilities, an assessment was conducted to determine if the Navy still needed as many systems as it originally envisioned in 2008.

The assessment, conducted through the Navy and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, showed that it did not. In 2008, the program called for five 24/7 orbits, meaning where the aircraft is stationed — one each in 5th, 6th and 7th Fleets, and one on both coasts, Guerre said.

Based on Triton’s new configuration, the decision was made to drop the two coastal orbits, driving the aircraft quantity from 70 down to 27, he said. “We had originally envisioned a higher loss rate on aircraft than what we’ve seen historically with Global Hawk,” he continued. “And so that allowed us to not have to buy as many Tritons as to support those three … orbits.”

The assessment resulted in the current production lot that is funded through 2024, he said.

Bruner said the program has $1.3 billion in funding in the Future Years Defense Program, a budget projection that extends five years.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is supplying the Royal Australian Air Force with four of the aircraft — along with ground and support systems — to be used for maritime surveillance. The first of the four Tritons is expected to be delivered in 2024, RAAF officials have stated.

Northrop Grumman marked a major production milestone for the program when it conducted the first flight of an Australian Triton Nov. 9 at its Palmdale Aircraft Integration Center in California.

In parallel with the Navy’s assessment, the Office of the Secretary of Defense decided to examine the aircraft’s future potential, looking at capabilities that could be added in the future.

“One of the key things with multi-intel is that the day you field, you are already losing relevance because it’s a constantly evolving threat that you have to be ready to confront,” he said. The Office of the Secretary of Defense “really wanted to say, ‘Okay, great job … developing the system, now what do we want to do with it?’”

The evaluation resulted in fully funding an additional capability set called Increment 2 to be fielded between 2027 and 2028, Guerre said. While unable to list specific capabilities, he said Increment 2 will build on the existing architecture and improve “a number of systems significantly.” Triton’s current multi-intelligence configuration is Increment 1.

There is currently no plan for an Increment 3, but Guerre said increments will likely continue, as well as the assessments and evaluations.

“The nature of the systems … is that you’re constantly adapting to new threats out there,” he said. “And so … we’re aggressively moving forward with Increment 2 development efforts that will bring new capabilities into the existing multi-intel configuration, but I would anticipate that there will continue to be an evaluation of, ‘Where do we go as we move forward?’”

The uncertainty worried the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. Its 2022 annual assessment expressed concern over the program’s developmental delays and how that could affect testing.

“Developmental delays are causing the program to defer test points from the integrated test plan to maintain the IOC date, leaving mission capabilities unexercised or unevaluated before the start of [initial operational test and evaluation],” the report stated.

Guerre said operational commanders decided — based on the data sets available — to deploy the system due to the “criticality of the capability and the importance of the EP-3 sunset. So we’re not done with operational tests yet, and we are working through that right now with DOT&E.”

Alongside its delays, the program’s milestones have included early operational capability in 2020 and Triton’s first flight as a multi-intelligence aircraft in July 2021, Bruner said. Northrop Grumman delivered the first production multi-intelligence Triton to the Navy in February 2022 — and has since delivered six more — followed by the Navy’s IOC declaration in July and announced publicly in September.

Guerre said current efforts are focused on producing aircraft and ground stations, with plans to stand up Triton operations with 6th Fleet in February and 5th Fleet next October.

Nestled among the program’s highs and lows are lessons learned — especially because it is the first of its kind, Guerre said.

“It’s the first uncrewed, high-altitude system the Navy is fielding,” he said. Which has meant “numerous, I’ll say, opportunities and challenges,” he added. “And really what it comes back to is we’re kind of setting the course for a lot of uncrewed systems that will follow us.”

For the Navy, Guerre said Triton is not only blazing a trail through development and acquisition, but also personnel and training — learning “what it takes to make these uncrewed systems work.”

“And particularly work in the [Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility],” he said. “If you look historically, we have deployed a lot of uncrewed systems in 5th Fleet, which is a much smaller [area of responsibility] footprint. If you look at the size of the globe, 7th Fleet dwarfs it.”

Working across a larger area brings “a lot of different, interesting challenges that we encounter on a daily basis in terms of making these systems work,” he said. “But just really … teaching both the broader Navy and OSD about what it would take moving forward for these systems.”

The program’s uncharted territory is also what makes it exciting, he said. Triton is pushing boundaries for the Navy on the future of naval aviation, “but it’s also really helping define aviation in general … specifically for uncrewed systems.”

Looking back across the program’s evolution, Guerre said overall he is “very happy with what they’ve done.” Despite its challenges, when he came onto the program two and a half years ago, the schedule for achieving IOC was “very aggressive,” he said. “We were successful in achieving that schedule.”

Mapping the future for evolving needs is tricky, but Bruner said Northrop Grumman is already focused on advanced development leveraging its Triton flying test bed for research, development and integration of advanced capabilities insertion and mission expansion.

As Guerre noted, the program mission will continue to expand with the needs of the Navy — and its evolution into a multi-intelligence aircraft has enabled that.

Achieving initial operational capability represents “years of hard work, dedication and commitment … to deliver this capability at a critical time for the Navy,” Bruner said.

The hard work is far from over, but Guerre said the Navy will take Triton’s IOC capabilities and continue to “aggressively [move] forward … to develop efforts that will bring new capabilities into the existing multi-intelligence configuration.” ND

Topics: Navy News

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