The first of Australia’s future fleet of autonomous long-range ISR platforms has been officially unveiled at a ceremony in the United States.
Northrop Grumman has unveiled the first of up to seven MQ-4C Triton aircraft to be delivered to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as part of the AIR 7000 Phase 1B program.
The aircraft is on track for production completion in 2023 ahead of final delivery to Australia in mid-2024.
The RAAF’s future high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) platform was showcased on Thursday (15 September) during a ceremony at Northrop Grumman’s production site in California, attended by senior Australian and US government and defence officials.
“Today marks a significant milestone for Australia and the MQ-4C Triton program,” Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president, Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems, said.
“As we get ready for final system integration and flight test, we are one step closer to delivering this extraordinary maritime awareness capability to Australia.”
The Tritons are tipped to deliver over 24-hour endurance, collecting essential ISR data over land and sea to enable rapid, informed decision-making.
The HALE systems have also been designed to support future connectivity with the joint force, leveraging advanced autonomy and artificial intelligence/machine learning.
Air Marshal Robert Chipman, Chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, reflected on the capability potential of the platform, expected to operate alongside Australia’s Boeing-built P-8A Poseidon aircraft.
“Triton will provide the Royal Australian Air Force with an unprecedented capability to monitor and protect our maritime approaches,” he said.
“Triton will work alongside the P-8A Poseidon and this unmanned aircraft system will allow us to cover significant areas, at longer ranges and has the ability to stay airborne longer than a traditional aircraft.”
The unveiling follows two years of construction, which commenced in October 2020, with a number of key project milestones achieved over the past 12 months.
Northrop Grumman Australia signed an acquisition services contract with Defence earlier this year, aimed at supporting the planning required to establish a sovereign sustainment capability before the RAAF Triton fleet enters service.
Just months earlier, an aircraft fuselage was successfully mounted on the one-piece wing of the platform.
This followed Northrop Grumman Australia’s delivery of the Triton Network Integration Test Environment (NITE) to Defence ahead of schedule.
Located at RAAF Base Edinburgh, NITE is expected to support the Chief Information Officer Group (CIOG) to configure and test the Triton network interfaces and systems ahead of delivery.
The Commonwealth government is yet to confirm the size of the future Triton fleet, with a decision subject to recommendations from the newly launched Defence Strategic Review.
Delivery of the future fleet is expected to strengthen interoperability with the United States Navy, which has commenced operation of the platforms.
The US recently increased funding for production of the ISR platforms, with the FY23 budget request including a total of US$587.8 million ($785.1 million) for the development of three aircraft.
This quashed fears the program could be scrapped following a halt in production due to an absence of funding in the FY21 budget.
Concerns were later put to bed after Northrop Grumman announced its receipt of a $15 million modification to the previously awarded, fixed-price incentive contract for the MQ-4C Triton project
The deal involves upgrading the unmanned platforms with Integrated Functional Capability 4 multiple intelligence configuration.
The IFC-4 feature is designed to better inform real-time decision making at tactical to strategic levels.
The first production IFC-4 Triton was delivered to the US Navy in February 2022, arriving at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
The platform, referred to as B8, was upgraded to the multi-intelligence configuration in line with the US Navy’s ISRT requirements.
This followed a successful flight test of the IFC-4 Triton in July 2021.