Navy's New Triton Drone Getting Close to Taking Over for Older Patrol Aircraft

MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system Naval Air Station Patuxent River
A U.S. Navy MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system prepares to land at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., Sept. 18, 2014, after completing a cross-country flight from California. (U.S. Navy photo/Kelly Schindler)

The Navy's new MQ-4C Triton drones hit a new development milestone last week, the Navy's project manager announced Tuesday.

Capt. Dan Mackin, the naval program manager for the Triton program, said that a new configuration of the drone, loaded with more sensors, had its first flight last Thursday over Southern Maryland. The drone's newly installed cameras and signals intelligence collection systems "are performing better than expected at this point," Mackin said at a press conference at the annual Sea Air Space conference today.

The Northrop Grumman-made unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV -- an enhanced variant of the RQ-4 Global Hawk -- is part of the Navy's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program and boasts next-generation sensors specially engineered for seafaring operations.

Despite the production milestones, the program's costs have grown in recent years. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that projected Triton development costs had increased 61% from $3.5 billion in 2009 to nearly $5.7 billion in October 2018.

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The Triton, which made its first flight in 2013, can stay airborne for more than 24 hours and fly 8,200 miles, according to Northrop.

Triton's new configuration, known as IFC 4 (Integrated Functional Capability 4) or the multi-int (multi-intelligence) capability, is a critical part of the Navy's plans for maritime patrol, according to slides shown at the press conference.

The slides noted that, once fully operational, the drone will replace many of the capabilities of the retiring EP-3 aircraft. The current fleet of Navy surveillance aircraft is rapidly aging, the last one having been delivered to the service in 1997.

Northrop's program manager, Doug Shaffer, also argued that the platform would take some of the mission strain from the Navy's P-8 aircraft, allowing the service to focus more on its anti-submarine mission.

Although still in development, two "fully operational aircraft" of an earlier equipment configuration already are flying out of Guam and Japan to support Navy missions in the Pacific region, Mackin said. The drones were initially deployed to Guam in January 2020 as part of an early operational capability (EOC) test.

Ultimately, the Navy plans to use the Triton in five areas or "orbits" around the world, according to Mackin. The aircraft will be based out of Guam; Sigonella, Italy; and locations on both coasts in the United States, Mackin said.

Northrop said the program expects to sell 68 aircraft to the Navy with the drones reaching initial operating capability in 2023, according to a press release.

"For the U.S. Navy, Triton is critical today and really indispensable tomorrow," Mackin said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Navy's New Triton Maritime Surveillance Drones Arrive in Guam for 1st Deployment

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