Australia issues Triton Letter of Request

Australia has issued an LOR for detailed information on the MQ-4C Triton. (Northrop Grumman)

The Australian government has confirmed its interest in acquiring the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft by announcing the issuance of a Letter of Request (LOR) seeking further information from the US.

Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and Minister for Defence Materiel Dr Mike Kelly said in a statement on May 16 that the LOR would give Australia access to detailed information on the US Navy’s Triton, which is built by Northrop Grumman.

But the long-awaited statement – first expected to have been announced at the Avalon Airshow earlier this year – emphasised that the release of an LOR does not yet commit Australia to purchasing the Triton, which is a variant of the Global Hawk intended for maritime surveillance.

“To help assess the suitability of the Triton for Australia’s requirements, the government will establish a Foreign Military Sales Technical Services Case with the United States Navy to obtain detailed cost, capability and availability information to inform future government consideration of Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B,” the ministerial statement read.

Minister Smith and Minister Kelly highlighted plans outlined in the recently released 2013 Defence White Paper to replace the AP-3C Orion fleet with P-8A Poseidon aircraft that would be complemented by unmanned aircraft capable of being tasked for broad area maritime surveillance and fleet overwatch missions.

“The goal is to provide long-range, long-endurance maritime surveillance and response, and an effective anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare capability,” the ministers said in the statement. “The acquisition of high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft for maritime patrol and other surveillance [tasks] is being developed under Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B.”


  1. Raymond says

    Dane – of course… it is Government policy that the AP-3C capability will be replaced by a mixed fleet of manned and unmanned aircraft – at this stage it appears to be 8 x P-8A Poseidon’s and 7 x MQ-4C Triton’s, with the manned component to be introduced first.

  2. John N says

    I can’t help but wonder why? Why send a LoR to the US now, why?

    The on again, off again, saga of the Global Hawk/Triton has been going since around the year 2000.

    * Around 2000 the Libs got involved in the Global Hawk, which then led to the non stop flight of a Global Hawk from the US to Australia in 2001.

    * By 2006 the Libs Defence Capability Plan (DCP) had Phase 1B, the unmanned system reaching IOC around 2009-11 and Phase 2B, P8A’s the manned system, reaching IOC around 2015-17.

    * Then in 2009 the Labor Goverment changed all that, the unmanned system was to be deferred till after the manned system, which was then due 2017-19 and no date for the unmanned system..

    * Even in last year’s DCP the plan was to have the P8A’s in service first around 2017-20, but no mention of the unmanned system.

    * In the new White Paper released only two weeks ago the plan was still to proceed first with the P8A’s to replace the AP3C’s, one of the lines said: ‘Defence will continue to investigate options for a mixed manned and unmanned aircraft fleet to inform Government consideration later in the decade.’

    So why now, what’s changed?

    I think the answer is more about politics, I think its because this Government wants to be seen to be doing something about ‘Border Protection’.

    The Libs have on occasions said they will obtain Global Hawk/Tritons for border protection, I think this government is just getting in on act to appear to be doing something.

    Be interesting to See if Def Min Smith is interviewed on this and see what he actually says, and how the ‘general’ media reports this to the public.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that we should be following the USN with a mixed fleet of P8A’s and Tritons, it’s just that it seems a bit odd when we haven’t even order the P8A’s yet and the USN is still a few years from having them operational and ‘then’ following that up by the introduction of the Triton.

    Call me cynical, but this just smells of politics!!


    John N

  3. Raymond says

    John N – I see your point, and I can understand your cynicism, however I for one am glad that at least some formal progress is now being made on acquiring the Global Hawk / Triton. Shouldn’t we really be thankful that at long last a LOR is being issued, and the RAAF will have the awesome P-8A and MQ-4C capability? There’s no doubt about it, the RAAF is living up to its name as the “best small airforce in the world” and they’re only getting better with these sorts of acquisitions. I try to look on the positives!

    Thanks – I always enjoy and appreciate your constructive and factual contributions John.

    PS. And without getting too deep into the political aspects, I do share your sentiments!


  4. John N says

    Hi Raymond,

    Thanks for your comments and input too.

    As I said don’t get me wrong, I think this is the path we should be following, but it just seems odd when there is no clear indication in either the new White Paper or the Budget and the forward estimates that any timeframe or money has been allocated to this phase of the AIR7000 project.

    By mid year the 2013 DCP will be release and we may see something there, but again if it does, why didn’t the White Paper or the forward estimates reflect that?

    I would certainly expect to see some announcement on the P8A’s in the near future, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this regarding the Triton without, as it appears, no money currently allocated.

    Historically when an LoR is sent to ask the US about price and availability it usually indicates that that a formal order is not that far off.

    If this is just about ‘rejoining’ the BAMS project and have some development input, as we have with joining the development of the P8A, I don’t understand why an LoR would be needed to do that.

    It will be worth keeping an eye out on the DSCA website to see the details of the LoR and what is actually being requested.

    I still think this is political, as we know the election not far away and we may see this being used as a way for the Government to show that it is serious about border protection, be interesting too to see if the Government has a secret bucket of money hidden away, eg, supplementary funds to use for this purchase.

    Like you I’m glad that we are seeing some progress on this project, still, I can’t help but be cynical that this is to do with an election announcement about border security.


    John N

  5. Andrew McLaughlin says

    The Global Hawk jn 2001 was not ready to take in the maritime role, it’s only the develoent of the MQ-4C that has realised thia capability.

    The reasons for the recent delays have been two-fold, related more to the RAAF’s capacity to introduce two new maritime ISR types – the MQ-4C and the P-8, concurrently. Now that tge P-8 is well underway and the AP-3C is starting to draw down, the RAAF can start to devite some capacity to Phase 1B.

    The other reason is because of delays in the US BAMS program and a planned USN IOC of 2015.

  6. John N says

    Hi Andrew,

    So do you think there will be a closing of the gap between the introduction of both the manned and unmanned phases of the AIR 7000 project?

    Are we likely to see them introduced sooner rather than later? My question mark has been more on the fact that the introduction of the unmanned phase, eg Triton, seems, according to what has been published by Defence, is still quiet a way off.

    As you said there had been concurrency issues regarding introducing both types due to the RAAF’s lack of capacity to do so.

    Interested to hear your thoughts.


    John N

    PS, Hopefully we’ll see AA publish a detailed update on AIR 7000 in a not too distant future issue.

  7. NGF says

    Does anyone know if the MQ-4C Triton has any self defence capability beyond altitude and speed?

  8. John N says


    I would think not, in all that I have ever read about the Global Hawk / Triton family, I have never seen mention of a weapons payload, only sensors, unlike the Reaper for example.

    If you go and have a look on the NorthropGrumman site, a spec sheet about the Triton says that it does have the ability to carry an ‘external’ payload, quoted as being around 1100kgs (and that’s not much of a weapons payload), don’t know if this means more sensor’s or probably at best some decoy systems, but I’m only guessing as to what the external payload would be.

    But you do bring up a good point, what if in a hot situation, the Triton was being used to gather intelligence information, what would its operating limits be?

    Would it just be a case of not allowing it to get to close to a potential enemy, and just use its sensors to ‘look’ from afar?

    Good question, doesn’t seem to be a clear answer available, but it doesn’t appear to have a self defence capability.



  9. Raymond says

    John N – your point does make sense… the federal election result will probably be a major factor in the Triton acquisition, as the Coalition’s policy contained in their “Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians” document states, “We will immediately start the process of acquiring a number of new state-of-the-art unmanned aircraft.” So yes, your point about it being political may have a lot of merit…

    As far as the budget / forward estimates and timeframes go, well, the problem is simply because the Government is struggling to stump up the money (and don’t get me started on that!) and therefore it’s hard to commit!

  10. Andrew McLaughlin says

    Both sides of politics have an MUAS capability as policy (ref AIR 7000 Ph1B in the DCP), and whomever wins on Sept 14 will take guidance from the RAAF & DMO as to when it can be afforded and when sufficient capacity can be in place to safely and effectively introduce it.

  11. Frequent Flyer says

    Tell me all about GH John, I was there when it landed after its historic flight from Edwards Air Force Base in Calif to RAAF Base Edinburgh and the Liberal Minister at the time was lauding the virtures of GH for Australia in front of all the USAF bigwigs. And that was followed by a demonstration of the Mariner UAV over the North West Shelf and the same hot air from the government.

  12. John N says

    As Andrew rightly points out, both side of politics are in favour of the capability, so there is no doubt in time we will see an unmanned aircraft, most likely the Triton, in RAAF service alongside the P8A’s.

    One question that I have thought about for a while is, is 7 airframes enough?

    There is no question that with the ability to stay aloft for up to 30hrs, with around 24hrs on station, it gives this aircraft an enormous capability to cover vast areas of our surrounding oceans in a single mission.

    If there was a need to provide continuous coverage over a period of time of multiple locations, eg, the Indian, Pacific and the oceans and seas to our North, how would 7 airframes be able to do that?

    At any one time there would probably be a couple in some form of maintenance, some on patrol and the remainder on standby to either take over from those on patrol or just be on standby for some unexpected task to be performed, is 7 enough?

    The other factor to consider is ‘attrition’ over the service life of the capability. Currently the Global Hawk family appears to have had a fairly high attrition rate, which appears to be reducing, and yes higher attrition is always a factor in the early days of a new system, and will no doubt improve significantly as it matures.

    Unfortunately just over 20 years ago an RAAF P3C was lost, with the loss of a crew member, when taking off from the Cocos Islands, that loss represented a 5% reduction in the fleet of 20 aircraft.

    If one Triton is ever lost, it will account for 14% of the unmanned fleet, if over time two were lost, that accounts for 28% of the unmanned fleet.

    So I do wonder if by entering this very new field of using large unmanned aircraft that, even with the best skill and maintenance in the world, that over time one or two airframes might be lost.

    I’m not trying to sound all doom and gloom, but when there is only a small fleet to cover such vast areas of the surrounding oceans, any possible or potential airframe loss will have a significantly impact on the overall capability of a small fleet.

    And I’m not ignoring the fact that apart from the Triton’s there will also be 8 manned P8A’s too, the combined fleet of both types is still 25% less airframes that the AP3C’s being replaced.

    I go back to my original question, is 7 enough? Will it be prudent to ensure that extra attrition airframes be covered in the original purchase contract? Or increase the fleet over time if funds allow for that too?


    John N

  13. Darren says

    The ‘seen to be doing something’ appears to be a strong point in politics, however if it delivers capability then that’s good.

    I tend to agree with much of what is written, and have had long time concerns re the numbers. 7 is not enough. I think 8 is the minimum. I also think 12 is the right number of P8’s. Maintenance, training, and deployments all divert limited airframes. And no matter how capable they are they can only be in one place at a time. I know we have a limited budget, but how does 8 P-8’s and 7 Tritons deploy to the gulf on anti piracy missions, or support troops with ISR, plus patrol at home? While both compliment each other, they are different, are used differently, and require different support. They can’t be pooled like the P-3. This is a similar story with KC-30’s; C-17’s; C-27’s; and CH-47’s. All great capabilities, but the numbers only make sense when viewed by what our budget can afford.

  14. Raymond says

    Andrew McLaughlin – yes, however I would expect the MUAS component to be fast-tracked should the Coalition win office. I think the point John N was making earlier was that current policy appears to be still to acquire this capability later rather than sooner, and that the LOR was more of a political move in order to be ‘seen’ to be serious about border protection (and match the Coalition’s policy). After all, while Defence obviously has much input and advice into procurement, operations, etc., it is the Government of the day that dictates policy and directs Defence to carry out its objectives.

    John N – in regards to numbers, 7 might be the initial buy, but this doesn’t mean it will be the final number. Think the P-3C (two batches of 10), the C-17A (4+1+1), the Super Hornet (24+12), the CH-47D (4+2+2), and the MRH-90 (12+34) as more recent examples of where additional airframes have been ordered. And yes, 8 P-8A’s and 7 Triton’s doesn’t really seem sufficient for the huge expanses surrounding our island continent, and I would really like to see more airframes ordered. 10-12 P-8A’s and 8-10 Triton’s seem like much more sensible numbers.

  15. Raymond says

    Frequent Flyer – remember that capabilities need to mature before they can be accepted into service and to look at the big picture. Only with the MQ-4C Triton / BAMS derivative of the Global Hawk has this platform been developed into something much more suitable for large ocean expanses.

  16. Raymond says

    Just to clarify a little further, this is the difference between the current Government’s policy (“consideration later in the decade”) and the Coalition’s policy (“immediately start the process”) re. the MUAS component…

    Minister for Defence and Minister for Defence Materiel – Joint Media Release – Triton unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, 16 May 2013:
    “Defence will continue to investigate options for a mixed manned and unmanned aircraft fleet to inform Government consideration later in the decade.”

    The Liberal Party’s ‘Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians’:
    “We will immediately start the process of acquiring a number of new state-of-the-art unmanned aircraft.”
    Ref. (page 48)