By Rear Adm. Sean S. Buck
Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Group
Today, the U.S. Navy’s initial system development and demonstration MQ-4C Triton air vehicle successfully completed its first flight from Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale, Calif.
The arrival of Triton, accompanied by two other unmanned systems, the MQ-8B/C Firescout and X-47B UCAS capability demonstrator, marks a new chapter in naval aviation. This developmental milestone of the Navy’s newest unmanned maritime surveillance air vehicle marks the beginning of flight-testing activities to certify the system for an initial operational capability.
A joint team of Navy and Northrop Grumman personnel operated Triton’s first flight from the Mission Control System at Palmdale. The air vehicle flew within restricted air space in the vicinity of Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale facility and Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The flight was 80 minutes and the air vehicle reached an altitude of 20,000 feet. Following the conclusion of airframe envelope expansion testing flights at Palmdale, the air vehicle will be flown to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., for completion of integrated systems testing to include an independent operational test and evaluation period before fielding the system for operational use.
Triton’s predecessor, the RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance – Demonstrator is currently employed in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. Originally planned to be flown on a six-month deployment, the RQ-4A air vehicle proved to be very valuable to the combatant commander; so BAMS-D continues in its 53rd month, amassing more than 10,000 total flight hours. Since deploying a single RQ-4A air vehicle to Central Command in January 2009, BAMS-D has completed more than 400 deployed sorties in support of the fleet commander.
BAMS-D is a former U.S. Air Force Global Hawk (Block 10) modified to work in a more robust maritime environment. One of the objectives for BAMS-D during this timeframe was to gather inputs and lessons learned for use in the development of the maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and tactics, techniques and procedures of its successor, MQ-4C Triton.
Triton’s upgrades include an improved airframe and sensors providing the fleet with a more capable and maritime platform. The Navy has a growing need for persistent maritime domain intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability that is not available today despite the valuable work of BAMS-D. MQ-4C Triton will meet this persistent need as an adjunct to the manned P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, helping to fulfill a major part of the military’s surveillance strategy for U.S. Pacific Command and Central Command areas of responsibility.
Assigned to Commander Patrol and Reconnaissance Group, Triton will round out the Navy’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force’s family of systems. Combined with the P-8A Poseidon aircraft and other supporting hardware and software systems, Triton will complement Poseidon with its unique ability to fly missions for up to 24 hours and transmit surveillance and collection information in real-time to units in the air and on ground. Additionally, Triton can fly at altitudes more than nine miles high, allowing the system an operational range of 2,000 nautical miles over ocean and littoral areas, an advantage that again enhances the overall abilities of the Poseidon and Triton team.
To accomplish the intent of persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, Triton is equipped with multiple sensors to include a multifunction active sensor radar, providing unprecedented 360-degree view for detecting and identifying ships and other targets at sea; an Electro-Optical Infrared Sensor that provides full motion video and still imagery of surface targets; an Electronic Support Measures system that detects and identifies radar threat signals; and an Automatic Identification System receiver that permits the detection, identification, geo-location and tracking of vessels equipped with AIS transponders. MQ-4C Triton operators will disseminate sensor data to fleet units to support a wide range of maritime missions to include surface warfare, intelligence operations, strike warfare, maritime interdiction, amphibious warfare, homeland defense, and search and rescue.
The Navy is examining options to base the Triton at various United States and overseas locations. An initial consideration may be to collocate Triton at Poseidon bases to leverage the operational experience of P-8A aircrew and ensure optimization of this persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset to meet the needs of combatant commanders worldwide.
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