The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of an initial $1.4 billion purchase of six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial systems has been a long time coming. But what does it mean for the nation’s maritime surveillance capabilities and wider regional alliances?
In March 2014 when then Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia would commit itself to being the first foreign customer of Northrop Grumman's MQ-4C Triton UAS, the nation had already settled on replacing it's ageing PC-3 Orions with Boeing P-8A Poseidon's, and many questioned the necessity and usefulness of such a large purchase of a relatively new, untested system.
Designed from the ground up to focus on high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, Northrop Grumman's Triton seemed perfect for meeting the Abbott government's 'Stop the Boats' and border security policies. However, increasing tensions in the South China Sea (SCS) have provided a new suite of mission requirements for Australia's future surveillance drone fleet.
Remotely flying out of RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia, the Triton's 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 (FONOP) in the SCS from the Northern Territory – increasing Australia's interoperability with key allies, particularly the US.
"The advent of programs like Triton, like the F-35 and these aircraft arriving in Australia, and the P-8A (Poseidon) and Wedgetail (E-7A) ... And LAND 400 in fact in the land domain and then these future frigates (SEA 5000), allow Australia to really have a very integrated approach to the future development of a joint force," said Ian Irving, chief executive of Northrop Grumman.
Designed to operate in conjunction with Australia's planned fleet of 12 manned P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft, the Triton's provide a quantum leap in the nation's surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, while the facilities and crew required to operate, train and maintain will be part of the initial $1.4 billion investment, which includes $364 million on new facilities at RAAF Bases Edinburgh and Tindal (in NT).
"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," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
Defence Connect spoke with Irving in mid-2017 to discuss the Australian government's planned Triton procurement and it's impact for Northrop's operations in Australia.
"Triton AIR 7000 is probably the largest of amongst those that allow us to continue to grow our capability (domestically) with the reachback from North America that we would be seeking to invest in those programs. We're still keeping an eye on acquisition but most of our growth now will be winning programs and investing in ourselves," he said at the time.
This major announcement follows on from other recent announcements by the Australian government regarding the nation's continuing commitment to contributing to regional peace and security, such as Defence Minister Payne's $22 million announcement of Australian investment at Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth, which has been a pivotal base for Australian forces rotating through the region for the past 60 years.
It is clear from this and the upcoming announcements around SEA 5000 and LAND 400 Phase 3 that the government is committed to enhancing Australia's capacity as a regional actor, with a highly competitive, sustainable defence industry base.