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IN DETAIL: Unpicking the MQ-4C Triton

During the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Expo in Sydney EX2 was briefed by Northrop Grumman Australia on Defence’s purchase of the MQ-4C Triton Uncrewed Air Vehicle (UAV).

Gregor Ferguson

If you’re going to field long-range weapons, it helps if you can see what you’re shooting at. And it helps if you can assess the effectiveness of those weapons after you’ve used them.

This has long been one of the Australian Defence Force’s weaknesses: it has lacked the ability to detect and identify targets at some distance, and then engage them before they can get close enough to damage Australian platforms or interests.

Yes, Australia has Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) to conduct Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and search sea areas for potentially hostile contacts, both surface ships and submarines. And Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships are equipped with helicopters to both undertake ISR missions and provide over the horizon targeting.

However, sending a manned and not very stealthy helicopter or MPA out in search of a hostile warship which could shoot it down as soon as it gets within radar range is probably not a good use of resources. Using Uncrewed Air Vehicles (UAV) for ISR and targeting would make more sense, but Defence has just cancelled the RAN’s planned acquisition of a fleet of Schiebel S100 Camcopters. And of course there have been no long-range land-based missiles in ADF service though that will change, eventually.

Situational Awareness (SA) is more important than ever: knowing what’s on, above or under the surface of the oceans surrounding us. Building and maintaining a Common Operating Picture (COP) creates a level of understanding of the environment we’re in and the behaviour of our neighbours and allies. That SA is the first step towards a targeting capability. But the ADF has lacked the sensor platforms to provide more than a very focussed, local capability. It has lacked the ability to build SA and to target long-range weapons right across a wide area of interest.

Furthermore, pulling the ISR product from existing MPAs, surface ships, helicopters, UAVs and other assets into a single COP has been a slow and imprecise process. The Joint Air Battle Management System (JABMS) the ADF has signed up for in Project AIR 6500 should make this much quicker and easier but it isn’t in service yet.

The ADF’s ‘blind spot’ has been within the range area of long-range missiles it currently operates or plans to acquire such as the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM – 185km+), Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon (124km +), Lockheed Martin AGM-158B JASSM-ER (900km +) and LRASM (370km +) and the new Precision Stand Off Missile (PrSM – 500km +) which Australia plans to acquire in possibly several of its four main variants.

Targeting for these weapons means detecting a target, identifying it, guiding a weapon on to it and then conducting a post-strike reconnaissance.

The RAAF’s MQ-4C Triton. Image: Northrop Grumman via Defence

Anatomy of the Triton

Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Uncrewed Air Vehicle (UAV) is intended to cover this SA and Targeting ‘blind spot’. Defence is part of a cooperative development program with the US Navy and announced in 2023 it had ordered its fourth Triton (of a planned fleet of seven) in 2023 under Project AIR 7000 Ph.1B; the US Navy plans to order 27. The RAAF’s plans to acquire the remaining three UAVs depend on decisions that will be announced with the National Defence Strategy and a revision of Defence’s Integrated Investment Program in 2024.

The first RAAF Triton made its maiden flight in November 2023 and it is scheduled for delivery to Australia in mid-2024. Maintenance and support will be carried out in-country and the Triton is the first-ever frontline aircraft operated by the RAAF that will have contracted maintenance. Northrop Grumman Australia was awarded a four-year Interim Sustainment Support Contract (ISSC) of undisclosed value in mid-2023 to conduct maintenance services at both Tindal and Edinburgh air force bases and will also carry out what the company terms ‘Platform Steward’ roles including engineering and supply support.

The unarmed Triton UAV was developed under the US Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. With a wingspan of 130.9ft (39.9m) and a length of just 47.6ft (14.5m), it is designed to fly at 50-55,000 feet for up to 30 hours at a time, several thousand kilometres offshore (or over land); at 55,000ft, its radar horizon for most ship types is more than 500km. Triton will provide real-time ISR coverage of 4 million square nautical miles of sea or littoral in a 24-hour period, according to Northrop Grumman.

It is powered by a single Rolls Royce AE3007H turbofan of up to 8,917lb of thrust and has a cruising speed of 300kt. Triton has a five-person crew, all of them ground-based, consisting of an Air Vehicle Operator, Tactical Coordinator, two Mission Payload Operators and a SIGINT Coordinator who man the Triton’s Mission Control Station (MCS). Four UAVs, two MCS and two Mission System Trainers (MST) make up what the RAAF terms an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS).

The RAAF has reformed 9 Sqn to operate its Tritons. While the aircraft themselves will operate out of RAAF Base Tindal, near Katherine in the Northern Territory, the UAS will be located at RAAF Base Edinburgh in Adelaide, where the RAAF also bases its 12 P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and has established secure data-handling infrastructure.

Triton’s endurance means that the RAAF can surveil a defined sea area or littoral on a 24/7 basis: one aircraft will be on station with another one flying out to relieve it as it gets to the end of its shift; a third aircraft will be preparing for the shift after next while the fourth could be in deep maintenance or just kept as a spare.

If Defence really wants to operate at a distance, Northrop Grumman was quoted in Australian Defence Magazine back in 2021 as stating that a single Triton could mount a 10-hour ‘orbit’ of the Southern Ocean, south of Heard Island, from a base in mainland Australia. If necessary, a Triton could mount a similar ‘orbit’ east of Fiji, also from an Australian mainland base. For interest, the US Navy declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for its own MQ-4C Tritons in 2023; the first batch of four will support the 7th Fleet with four UAVs based in Guam while their GCS is located in continental USA.

Unlike its stable-mate, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, Triton is designed to descend fairly frequently to lower altitudes so it can use its electro-optic sensor to take a closer look at suspect surface vessels. It will then climb rapidly back to its patrol height where it relies more on the 360o coverage of its radar.

The Triton’s primary sensor is a radar, Northrop Grumman’s AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) equipped with an Active Electronic Sensor Array (AESA) antenna that is capable of surveiling up to 2,000 square miles (5,200km2) in a single sweep. The radar also has an Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) mode meaning it can image and so identify ship types quickly and in all weather conditions, and at long (though unspecified) range, according to Northrop Grumman. For lower-altitude work (typically below the cloud layer) the Triton uses its turreted Raytheon MTS-B Multi-Spectral Targeting System Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) sensor.

The US Navy, Northrop Grumman and the RAAF have been careful not to state the minimum size of target Triton can detect.

The UAV also carries an Electronic Support Measures (ESM) suite (reportedly similar to that carried by the US Navy’s EP-3 Aries SIGINT aircraft, and heavily classified) enabling it to detect and classify even faint radar signals and use this data either to conduct passive surveillance or for targeting. The Triton can also operate as a communications relay platform for line-of-sight radio links that need to extend beyond the radio horizon.

Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness, of course, has always been important: Australia has a 34,000km coastline, an exclusive economic zone of some 10 million km2 (3.8 million square miles) and has Search and Rescue responsibility for about 10 percent of the earth’s oceans.

Its area of maritime interest, however, extends beyond this: any threat to Australia must come from or through the archipelagos to the country’s north, or from even further afield: the Red Sea, for example, or the Korean Peninsula. Australia’s defence begins with a detailed understanding of who is at sea or in the air in its area of interest: this is a little-understood aspect of the RAAF’s work which has traditionally relied on manned aircraft such as AP-3C Orion MPAs or E-7A Wedgetails to build up this detailed surveillance picture.

Triton’s carriage of the maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS) also matters: anything which wants to be seen will show up as a blip on the AIS which can be cross-checked with radar or MTS-B data. Radar or EO/IR contacts that don’t show an AIS return are automatically suspect.

To help achieve and maintain SA, the Triton is fitted with the Minotaur Track & Mission Management System, originally developed for the US Coast Guard. This uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to integrate track data and information from other agencies and alert operators of potentially suspicious tracks and activity. Minotaur will be integrated also into the RAAF’s P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft in a scheduled update and already forms part of the maritime patrol ground environment at RAAF Base Edinburgh.

At a time when the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is investing in long-range strike weapons to hit both ground and maritime targets, targeting is suddenly rather important, and this is one of the key roles of the Triton.

On EX Northern Edge back in May 2023 a US Navy Triton demonstrated it can detect, identify and designate a target well beyond the radar horizon of a sea- or land-based sensor. Triton can also designate a target for a stealthy, over the horizon attack by an airborne platform and will also be able to tell higher command whether or not the attack worked.

However, for the majority of its time on station the Triton will be conducting ISR operations, building databases of potentially hostile transmissions and creating a picture of maritime movements within its ‘orbit’, which was one of its primary roles on EX Northern Edge. This was a key step towards achieving IOC, a milestone the UAV passed in September.

Triton is expected to gather as much 2 Terrabytes of data on every mission and in RAAF service the information Triton gathers will be analysed back at Edinburgh (and elsewhere) by aircrew and intelligence specialists. It will also be shared – in real time, if necessary – with other services and agencies and even other nations so that the ADF’s sensors, shooters and commanders operate on an ‘all informed’ basis.


That’s all jolly good, of course until the enemy destroys it. Hitting a slow, non-stealthy Triton with a surface-air or air-air missile wouldn’t be too hard. Replacing the UAV will take time – but would the replacement be just as vulnerable? Undoubtedly.

Arguably, satellites could do the same thing as a Triton. A constellation of surveillance satellites in Low or Medium Earth Orbit or in Geostationary Orbit (LEO, MEO and GEO) would be well outside missile engagement range and their radar horizons and so their field of view would be enormous.

But satellites do have some inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities: firstly, their orbits are well known and so they are vulnerable to attack. Secondly, simply destroying a few satellites in LEO (and it wouldn’t matter whose they were as long as the destruction caused plenty of debris) could create a cloud of debris which would make that orbital band useless to everybody and represent a particular disadvantage to any country that relies on space-based assets for military superiority.

If that happened – the so-called Kessler Syndrome – then launching new satellites of any kind might be out of the question for a while, assuming that you have the capability to launch in a responsive way in the first place.

Furthermore, even if the Kessler Syndrome didn’t occur, a radar-equipped satellite would still lack the ability to check suspect ships and other structures from lower altitude, meaning some other agency and platform would need to do this. Every maritime patrol agency in the world uses EO sensors to check out suspect ships and other structures from low altitude. But satellites equipped with EO sensors will be stuck in their orbital band, possibly 400km or more in the sky and vulnerable to cloud conditions and atmospheric attenuation across much of the Indo-Asia-Pacific, not to mention the Kessler Syndrome.

Finally, unless you have a significant constellation of surveillance satellites and so can maintain unbroken coverage of a specific area or target, a satellite’s orbital period is about 100 minutes or so; the satellite will be over a specific area of interest for a few minutes at a time, and about once every five days, although a wide field of regard could mean that several successive orbits take the satellite close to the area of interest. But that’s not good enough for either monitoring or targeting purposes.

So, a Triton would act as a ‘pseudolite’ – a high-altitude sensor and communications platform that’s capable of persistent ISR, targeting and communications relay. It will be part of a networked suite of ADF sensors, all of them contributing to the COP: JORN, the E-7A, surface radars (including Space Domain Awareness, or SDA, sensors), ship-borne radars and sensors aboard manned aircraft – the F-35A, Super Hornet and P-8A.

With a radar horizon of more than 500km Triton will be able to identify threats and designate specific targets by geo-locating them, sharing their location coordinates with a long-range weapon and updating at least some of those weapons in mid-course before the weapons’ own sensors and seeker heads take over in the terminal stages of an attack.

If the Triton were paired with an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft, for example, hostile aircraft and ships would be spotted some way off, almost certainly in enough time for counter-measures to be initiated before they get within missile range.


There is some truth in many of the commentariat’s assertions about Defence wasting money and its glacially slow processes, but Defence also gets some things right. The problem is that it doesn’t engage either the general public or the specialist media, so it’s actually much harder than it ought to be to tell when Defence is doing something right or not. The acquisition of the Triton is a case in point.

Defence announced it had ordered its fourth Triton shortly after the US Navy announced it was cutting its own purchase of the same UAV from a planned 68 to just 27 and from five ‘orbits’ to three. The interpretation by the critics was that Defence had taken far too long to acquire something from a foreign supplier that even its parent Navy no longer wanted and as a result Australian taxpayers were being saddled once more with a costly but useless capability. The response from Canberra was a deafening silence.

But the US Navy has argued that it still needs Tritons, just not so many of them. Over a decade ago the Service deployed a BAMS Demonstrator, effectively a Triton prototype, to the Middle East for six months – it later augmented this with a second aircraft and the two arrived back at Patuxent River no less than 13 years later, in June 2022, having flown 42,500 hours in 2,069 missions on behalf of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and US Central Command. By the end of their ‘demonstrator’ deployment the two Tritons were providing more than 50 per cent of the entire theatre’s maritime ISR and flying fifteen 24-hour orbits each month. Demand for its services simply grew year on year, which delayed its withdrawal by twelve and a half years.

This experience has validated the US Navy’s need for Triton and refined its view of exactly how many BAMS ‘orbits’, and therefore UAVs, it needs. However many it’s got, it will have at least one more, courtesy of the ADF, which for the first time in its history will be able to detect and identify targets for long-range weapons, designate those targets and carry out post-strike reconnaissance. The MQ-4C Triton aims to help build up and maintain a more detailed picture of exactly what’s out there than the ADF has previously been able to create – and it will be a strike asset as well as an ISR one.

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