Australia Confirms MQ-4C Triton Buy

 - June 28, 2018, 9:08 AM
Australia PM Malcolm Turnbull, Australian defense minister Marise Payne, Australian defense industry minister Christopher Pyne, and Australia’s Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies at the announcement this week. (Photo: Australian Dept. of Defence)

The Australian government formally confirmed that it would acquire six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, at a cost of just over $1 billion. The first one will enter service in 2023, with full operating capability to follow with the complete fleet two years later. This first export sale is likely to be followed by another, to Germany.

Australia has also acquired Boeing P-8A manned maritime patrol aircraft and, like the U.S. Navy, plans to cooperatively operate them with the Tritons. The high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs will survey larger areas with their radars and EO/IR sensors, to cue the P-8A. Australia first declared its intention to buy the MQ-4C in 2014, less than a year after the type’s first flight in the U.S. The newly quoted investment total includes more than $80 million (AUD 110 million) at the Tindal RAAF airbase in the Northern Territories, to where the UAVs will forward-deploy from RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia.

Commenting on the Australian sale, Doug Shaffer, vice president of Triton programs, Northrop Grumman said: “Australia has one of the largest sea zones in the world over which it has rights to use marine resources. Triton can serve in missions as varied as maritime domain awareness, target acquisition, fisheries protection, oil-field monitoring, and humanitarian relief.”

The U.S. Navy received its first two Tritons on June 1 and will operate them from Anderson Air Force Base on Guam starting later this year. The aircraft are equipped to a baseline standard with Northrop Grumman’s own AN/ZPY-3 AESA surveillance radar and Raytheon’s Multispectral Targeting Sensor, marine automatic identification system, and an ELINT sensor, as described last year. Later deliveries will include a COMINT sensor and a sense-and-avoid radar. (Original plans to provide the latter from the outset were abandoned). 

The U.S. Navy program of record for the MQ-4C is still 68 aircraft, for operation from Sigonella, Italy; Bahrain; NAS Jacksonville, Florida; and NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, as well as Guam. Two interim Broad Area Maritime Surveillance—Demonstrator versions, based on the U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk airframe, have been operating from NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, for eight years.

In 2013, Germany aborted plans to acquire a SIGINT-dedicated version of the Global Hawk named the EuroHawk because of its inability to achieve certification to fly in civilian airspace. Germany had already invested a large amount in the program, including in the SIGINT sensor from Airbus Defence & Space (then EADS Cassidian). 

Since the Triton has a stronger airframe and icing and lightning-strike protection, Germany apparently believes that it can meet European certification requirements. Last April, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of a possible foreign military sale (FMS) to Germany of four MQ-4Cs plus a mission control station. Together with various navigation and communications equipment, plus support and training, the cost was estimated at $2.5 billion. The notification described a division of contracting responsibility between Northrop Grumman and Airbus Defence & Space.

German officials have said that they hope to conclude contracts next year and introduce what they now call the Pegasus (Persistent German Airborne Surveillance System) in 2025.