Despite concerns about rising costs and a capability gap following a US 'production pause' on the MQ-4C Triton program, Northrop Grumman has moved quickly to respond to Australia's anxiety about the program.
When the US Department of Defense confirmed that the 2021 Budget Authorization would see a suspension on the manufacturing and acquisition of the MQ-4C Triton platform until FY2023 many within Australia's defence apparatus were shocked and surprised.
This was especially true following revelations that the US Department of Defense had confirmed it would issue Northrop Grumman a sole-source contract to supply Australia with its second MQ-4C Triton high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system.
The announcement made as part of a notification posted to the US government's beta.sam.gov website, is part of the $1.4 billion program to acquire six of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) platforms.
Indeed, Marcus Hellyer, ASPI senior analyst for Defence economics and capabilities, raised some concerns about Australia's continued acquisition of the MQ-4C Triton, stating:
"The pause is unfortunate for Australia for several reasons. Our first Triton should be delivered before the pause takes effect, but overall the goal of initial operational capability in 2023-24 and final operational capability by 2025 look like taking a two-year hit. That’s the best-case future."
In response, Northrop Grumman chief executive, Chris Deeble has reinforced Northrop Grumman's proposal to bring forward the production of five aircraft as part of the low-rate, initial production (LRIP) 5, as opposed to the LRIP 6 and 7 as previously planned.
"We’ve been working with the US Navy to provide an option to buy the rest of their aircraft as part of the LRIP 5 contract. That provides a significant unit-cost saving to Australia, so now’s the time to buy more than ever," Deeble explained during a media briefing.
However, this will require a prompt decision by the Australian government if it is to pursue the fast-tracked acquisition program – Northrop Grumman proposes to add the additional five Australian airframes to the planned three aircraft in the LRIP 5 (which includes two for the US Navy and one for the RAAF) bringing the total to eight airframes.
Deeble added, "The two key points are, this will probably be the best price you will be able to achieve for the Triton capability, and we’re remaining within the [Australian] defence profile.
"We also look to provide Australian industry opportunities as a consequence. And committing to an additional five aircraft in LRIP 5 will provide about $56 million (US$37 million) of opportunity in that regard."
Remotely flying out of RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia, the Tritons are capable of monitoring 40,000 square kilometres a day and seamlessly flying a round trip for sustained surveillance and in support of allied freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea from the Northern Territory – increasing Australia’s interoperability with key allies, particularly the US.
The Triton is designed to operate in conjunction with Australia’s planned fleet of 12 manned P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.
Expanding on this, the 2016 Defence White Paper explained the importance of the Triton platform as it fits within the Australian Defence Force:
"To complement the surveillance capabilities of the [P-8A] Poseidon, the government will acquire seven high altitude MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft from the early 2020s … The Triton is an unarmed, long-range, remotely piloted aircraft that will operate in our maritime environment, providing a persistent maritime patrol capability and undertaking other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks."
Turnbull described the delivery timeline as it stood in 2018: "The first of the Triton aircraft is expected to be introduced into service in mid-2023, with all six aircraft to be delivered and in operation by late 2025, based at RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia."