On July 22 Northrop Grumman was awarded a $33.8 million contract to procure materials and fund the work necessary to add a signals intelligence (Sigint)-gathering capability to the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system, with the bulk of the work to be performed at the company’s facilities in San Diego and Palmdale, California.
This award follows on from earlier research and development contracts, with work due to be completed by January 2022. The contracting agency is the Naval Air Systems Command, managed by the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (PMA-262) that oversees the MQ-4C Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program and related activities with RQ-4A/N aircraft. The latter recently hit the headlines when an RQ-4A BAMS-D air vehicle was shot down on June 20 by Iranian air defenses over the Strait of Hormuz.
The addition of a comprehensive Sigint capability will permit the Triton to take over the roles currently undertaken by the manned Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries II, a dedicated Sigint version of the P-3 Orion. To perform these tasks the MQ-4C is being fitted with a suite of receivers that replicate the advanced capabilities of the EP-3E, but with signals analysis and exploitation being performed in ground stations. The upgrade work is part of the MQ-4C Integrated Functional Capability (IFC) 4.0 program, due to achieve operational capability in 2021.
First flying on May 22, 2013, the MQ-4C is a navalized development of the RQ-4 Global Hawk with strengthened structure, lightning protection, and an anti-icing system. In its primary role the platform acts as an unmanned maritime patrol asset to augment the U.S. Navy’s manned Boeing P-8A Poseidon fleet. Currently the Navy has three MQ-4Cs flying with VX-20, the Patuxent River-based test and evaluation squadron, and another three with the first operational unit, VUP-19 “Big Red” at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. The Triton has also been ordered by Australia.
The Aries II—which serves with VQ-1 ‘World Watchers” at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, but operates from a number of locations around the world—is scheduled to be withdrawn from service in 2021. Orions have been used for Sigint since the 1960s in a number of versions, with the current EP-3E fleet having been delivered in the 1990s. The type is best-remembered for an April 2001 incident in which one collided in mid-air with a Chinese J-8IIM fighter, which had intercepted the U.S. aircraft. The J-8 and its pilot were lost, while the EP-3 was forced to land on Hainan island, where it was held by Chinese authorities. It was later disassembled and airlifted back to the U.S. in an Antonov An-124.