The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) under development for the United States Navy as a surveillance aircraft. Developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, the system is intended to provide continuous maritime surveillance for the U.S. Navy, and to complement the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
The MQ-4C System Development and Demonstration (SDD) aircraft was delivered in 2012 and the MQ-4C UAS was originally expected to be operational by late 2015 with a total of 68 aircraft to be procured. However, in April 2013, the Navy announced that production has shifted from FY14 to FY15 due to additional testing requirements and technical issues related to the aircraft’s double-tail vertical stabilizer and rudder, and software integration for maritime sensors.
According to the latest information available from the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the MQ-4C UAS is now planned for 2017.
The competitors for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) contract included:
- Boeing, with an unmanned version of the Gulfstream G550 business jet. It was optionally manned and has “commonality with other Boeing-built naval aircraft.”
- Northrop Grumman, with a navalized RQ-4 Global Hawk. In order to begin testing the surveillance package early, Northrop Grumman contracted with Flight Test Associates of the Mojave Spaceport to modify a Grumman Gulfstream II as a flying testbed.
- Lockheed Martin, with a General Atomics MQ-9 Mariner
The BAMS UAS was acquired for the U.S. Navy as a Department of Defense Acquisition Category (ACAT) 1D program and on April 22, 2008, Northrop Grumman received the BAMS contract worth $1.16 billion. Lockheed Martin filed a formal protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) two weeks later. On August 11, 2008 the GAO ruled to uphold the Navy’s selection of Northrop Grumman.
In September 2010, the BAMS aircraft was designated the MQ-4C.
Official unveiling took place on June 14, 2012 at Palmdale, California. During the event, it was announced that the Navy had approved the name “Triton” for the aircraft. The first flight of the MQ-4C by aircraft Bureau Number (BuNo) 168457 took place on May 22, 2013, followed by subsequent test flights at Edwards AFB, California and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was planned for December 2015 and has now slipped to 2017.
The U.S. Navy plans an eventual fleet of 68 MQ-4Cs and 117 P-8As to replace the aging P-3C Orion force. Around 40 MQ-4Cs will be based at various sites, predominantly home stations or overseas deployment sites for Navy P-8A and P-3C aircraft. This includes a to be determined location in Hawaii (most likely MCAS Kaneohe Bay); NAS Jacksonville, Florida; Kadena Air Base, Japan; NAS Point Mugu, California, and NAS Sigonella, Italy. The “Air Force Times” reported on September 14, 2012, that the system will also be stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
In August 2013, the Navy paused the development of the “sense and avoid” radar system that would enable the MQ-4C to avoid other aircraft traffic. The Triton would have been the first unmanned aircraft to be fitted with an airborne sense and avoid solution, but the system is behind schedule and over budget. The radar system remains a requirement in the program, but budgetary and technology pressures have forced the Navy to defer integrating it onto the aircraft. The Navy and Northrop Grumman are working to determine when the sense-and-avoid system can be cut into the production line.
On September 6, 2013, the Navy awarded Northrop Grumman a $9.98 million contract for maintenance and support of the MQ-4C SDD aircraft to enable it to fly 15 missions per month, an increase from 9 per month as previously planned, with senior Navy commanders wanting to keep closer tabs on activities in the ocean and coastal regions of the Middle East.
Australia has been considering the MQ-4 as both a military platform and as customs enforcement platform. However, senior Australian customs officials doubt how effectively the planned seven MQ-4C aircraft would detect small boats in the country’s northern waters, especially through cloud cover. In terms of military use of the MQ-4, Air Marshall Geoff Brown, head of the Royal Australian Air Force, was quoted in 2013 that Australia is now considering purchasing more manned P-8 Poseidon aircraft and reducing, though not eliminating, the number of MQ-4C Triton UAVs that it originally planned to buy for the RAAF.
The Indian Navy also desires to procure the MQ-4C to play a complementary role to the Boeing P-8I Poseidon variant, 12 of which are already on order, to bolster the maritime aerial surveillance capability of India. Other interested foreign governments include Canada, Japan, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom.
The MQ-4C Triton performed its first flight on 22 May 2013 from United States Air Force Plant 42 / Palmdale Regional Airport, California. The flight lasted 1 hour 20 minutes and the aircraft reached an altitude of 20,000 ft.
Fleet operational evaluation and introduction
On February 7, 2013, the U.S. Navy announced that it would stand up Unmanned Patrol Squadron NINETEEN (VUP-19) at NAS Jacksonville, Florida on October 1, 2013, to eventually operate the MQ-4C as the Navy’s first Triton squadron.
A detachment of VUP-19 will also be established at NAS Point Mugu, California. VUP-19 will fall under the administrative control of Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing ELEVEN (CPRW-11) at NAS Jacksonville, where an MQ-4C mission control facility is also under construction, and will initially operate the Triton on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions for the U.S. 5th Fleet in the Southwest Asia/Middle East/East Africa region, the U.S. 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean, and U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Western Atlantic operations.
In 2014, the Navy will activate a second Triton squadron, VUP-11, to take over operations in the Pacific in support of U.S. 7th Fleet and share U.S. 5th Fleet operations with VUP-19.
Program cost US$13,240.9m (as of FY13)
Unit cost US$137.907m (FY13)
US$189.156m (inc R&D)
United States Navy
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