Is the RAAF’s Triton Program At Risk?


The Triton program is a key part of the RAAF’s approach to replacing the P-3s.

The RAAF is working the P-8/Triton dyad as the replacement and the key operating base at RAAF Edinburgh is designed to operate the dyad and to work the data to shape a common kill web sapproach to supporting ASW for the ADF.

But uncertainties in the US Navy’s funding and situation within the proposed budget for the new year are raising questions about whether the RAAF’s Triton acquisition plan is in jepoardy.

A February 27, 2020 article by Andrew McLaughlin highlights the challenge.

The RAAF’s planned acquisition of six Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned high-altitude long-endurance maritime ISR systems is potentially at risk due to the reallocation of programmed US Navy production fundingand reported delays in the development of the planned integrated functional capability (IFC) 4.0 version of the aircraft.

Originally approved through a Gate 1 process in 2014, Triton was selected under Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B to complement the RAAF’s planned 12-15 AIR 7000 Phase 2 Boeing P-8A Poseidons to conduct long-range surveillance of Australia’s maritime approaches. The RAAF’s planned manned-unmanned maritime surveillance model closely matches that planned for the US Navy, which currently has programs of record for 132 P-8As and 68 MQ-4Cs, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

The RAAF is acquiring the Triton through a A$200 million development, production and sustainment cooperative program with the US Navy which gives the RAAF input into system and sensor operating modes and development. To this end, at least eight RAAF and Australian Defence personnel are embedded within the US Navy’s Triton project office at NAS Patuxent (Pax) River near Washington DC to work on the aircraft’s development.

To date, the ADF has committed about A$1.7 billion to AIR 7000 Phase 1B, being for an initial two air vehicles, the $200 million co-operative program commitment, the construction of facilities at RAAF bases Edinburgh and Tindal, and supporting information technology infrastructure. The project has a total budget of between A$3 billion and A$4 billion.

But the new uncertainty follows the draft FY2021 President’s Budget which shows the Pentagon’s Department of Navy has allocated no funding to Triton production Lots 6 and 7 in FY 2021 and FY 2022, after just 14 of the planned 68 US Navy Tritons will have been delivered. 

Indeed, ADBR understands that the planned US$400m from these two years of the programmed Triton Lot 6 and Lot 7 production funding will be diverted elsewhere, with about half of it to bolster IFC4 development, and the balance to be part of the Pentagon’s contribution to building President Trump’s border wall. 

“The United States President’s 2021 budget proposes to significantly increase funding for the multi-intelligence configuration of the MQ-4C Triton aircraft system, known as IFC-4,” Northrop Grumman Australia Chief Executive AVM Chris Deeble (Ret’d) told ADBR in a February 28 statement. The budget also proposes pausing production of Triton in 2021 and 2022 while the development of IFC-4 is completed.”

It’s important to note the draft US budget is just that, a draft. With elements within Congress pushing back against the stripping of DoD funding for the border wall, the budget isn’t expected to be signed off anytime soon, adding further uncertainty to production planning.

“Defence is aware of the United States (US) Administration’s budget request to Congress, which includes a proposed pause on Triton production funding for two years until 2023,” a February 28 Defence statement to the ABC reads. “It is important to note that this request is not the final US Defense budget.

“The US Congress plays a significant role in the US budget process and will consider the President’s request as it prepares budget legislation for 2021,” the Defence statement adds. “Until the legislation is approved, the pause on Triton funding is not confirmed.” 

On top of the baseline IFC3 configuration currently in service, the US Navy has already contracted Northrop Grumman for more than US$80m for IFC4 development through four separate awards since July 2018. But that development is reportedly lagging and requires additional funding.

The IFC4 configuration is planned to incorporate the Northrop Grumman-developed ‘multi-intelligence’ (MULTI-INT) package which will incorporate signals (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) capabilities more advanced than the US Navy’s current Lockheed EP-3E Aries version of the P-3 Orion. IFC4 is considered by the RAAF to be its required baseline configuration, as is the incorporation of automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS-B) which ADBR understands is also at risk of delays.

In conjunction with the Triton’s maritime AN/ZPY-3 multi-function active sensor (MFAS) radar and multi-spectral targeting system-B (MTS-B) electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensors and satellite communication (SATCOM), MULTI-INT will give the system an incredibly capable real-time, high-altitude maritime surveillance capability across multiple spectrums. 

The diversion or deferral of US Navy Lot 6 and 7 production funding could mean RAAF Tritons planned for manufacture in these lots will be more expensive due to reduced production numbers, and also adds doubts that the US Navy will continue with the Triton program at all after the production halt. To this end, Australia is seeking assurances from the US Navy that it remains committed to the Triton program.

“Australia is currently discussing the impact of the Triton production pause with the US Navy and Northrop Grumman,” Defence says. “As a cooperative partner in the Triton program, the Department is working closely with both the US Navy and Northrop Grumman to understand impacts on Australia’s Maritime Patrol Program.”

AVM Deeble added, “The Triton industry team recognises that pausing production would have a negative impact on the timely delivery of this capability to the warfighter, and we are committed to working with various stakeholders to sustain Triton production and ensure our US and Australian customers receive this critical capability.”

To mitigate any cost increases due to reduced production, the RAAF has reportedly been asked to take the US Navy’s deferred Lot 6 and Lot 7 production slots. While this could reduce or maintain the cost of Australia’s aircraft, the RAAF would need to be ready to take these aircraft earlier than the current planned funding profile and operational introduction schedule. 

“The proposed production pause may represent an opportunity for the Australian government to bring the Triton capability forward, while ensuring affordability,” said AVM Deeble. “Production slots opened up by the US Navy could potentially be filled by Australian aircraft. This would ensure earlier delivery of assets to Australia while protecting affordability for both Australia and the United States.” 

Coupled with delays to the MULTI-INT development, this could mean early RAAF Tritons might also require a later hardware or software retrofit, adding further cost to, and reducing capability from, the RAAF’s planned schedule. But with the additional funding allocated to the completion of IFC4, the planned schedule to complete its development in early 2022 should precede completion of the RAAF’s first airframes by about one year.

As a consequence of the US budget uncertainty, Defence has reportedly been asked to submit three options to the Defence Investment Committee (IC) in early March on how to proceed on the program: to take the US Navy production slots; to delay the program by an estimated two years until US production ramps up; or to abandon the Triton program altogether. Regardless of which option is recommended by the IC, this will either require additional funding and/or approval by the National Security Committee of Cabinet. 

If the decision is taken to abandon the program, the RAAF might have to consider alternative capabilities such as additional manned P-8As, MC-55A Peregrine ISR aircraft, or perhaps a maritime ISR version of the unmanned General Atomics Sky Guardian that will be introduced under Project AIR 7003

The IFC4 delay adds to other Triton program schedule delays, including the planned early operational capability (EOC) of two Tritons on the island of Guam. Originally scheduled for early 2018, the Guam deployment was subsequently delayed to late 2018 and then late 2019, but didn’t actually occur until January 2020

“The Triton program is progressing well, with two aircraft now in Guam representing the first operational deployment of Triton, allowing the system to provide vital maritime ISR capabilities in one of the world’s vital trade regions,” AVM Deeble said. “These two aircraft are the first in what is planned to be a 68 aircraft fleet providing critical 24/7 maritime surveillance for the US Navy around the globe.” 

And an article by Marcus Hellyar published on February 27, 2020 also focused on the challenge as well.

The title of the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs asks, ‘Can we trust America?’ The case of the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial system would suggest the answer is no.

The 2016 defence white paper named the Triton as one of its capability priorities for the future 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.

The supporting integrated investment program flagged a cost of $3–4 billion.

In June 2018, the government announced that it would ‘invest $1.4 billion and acquire the first of six Tritons’ (it’s not clear what happened to the seventh). That top-level figure also included $364 million in infrastructure, as well as ‘the necessary ground control systems, support and training required to implement a project of this nature’.

But this wasn’t going to be a straightforward commercial or foreign military sales purchase. The government also announced that ‘as part of this investment Australia will also enter into a $200 million cooperative program with the United States Navy for the development, production and sustainment of the MQ-4C Triton’. It wasn’t very specific on what we would get for our $200 million, but stressed that ‘Australia’s alliance with the US is our most important defence relationship, underpinned by strong cooperation in defence industry and capability development’ and asserted that ‘[t]his cooperative program will strengthen our ability to develop advanced capability and conduct joint military operations’.

In March 2019, the government announced it had approved acquisition of the second aircraft at a cost of ‘around $350 million’.

So that makes it decidedly awkward that the US Department of Defense budget papers for fiscal year 2021 announced a two-year ‘production pause in FY 2021 and FY 2022’ in the Triton program. The budget documents don’t state what is behind the pause. There are a range of potential factors, including finding funds to help build President Donald Trump’s border wall and to achieve the chimerical goal of a 355-ship fleet (noting that the budget reduces orders for new ships this year).

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.

It could be worse. The US is much more willing to cancel programs than Australia is. And the wolves pick off the stragglers. Germany left the program earlier this year. The Triton has already suffered a 61% increase in development cost and a 70% increase in acquisition schedule, so with a two-year production pause on top of that plus the cost of restarting production, it’s looking more and more like an easy target for budget predators. There are no guarantees US Navy production will start up again, particularly if shipbuilding continues to need more cash (that last bit might sound familiar to Australian readers). That would leave us with one aircraft, a lot of infrastructure to support aircraft we won’t ever have, and a $200 million hangover.

It could be worse again. There’s some talk of Australia jumping in and filling the production gap by acquiring its remaining aircraft earlier. But this ‘opportunity’ may be a trap. When the production pause occurs, the US Navy will have received 14 of the 65 originally planned aircraft. If the US doesn’t continue the acquisition program, Australia may be on the hook for one-third of the future spiral development costs of a total fleet of around 20 aircraft.

Even worse, the US Navy may well decide it’s not worth operating its rump fleet and cancel everything, leaving Australia in the impossible position of holding six or seven orphan aircraft and the entire future cost of supporting the capability after we’ve gone all in for $3–4 billion. The sunk cost fallacy suggests it could be better to cut our losses and get out now, even if we have spent hundreds of millions already.

What do the worst-case scenarios mean for capability? The loss of the Triton will certainly be felt in border protection, but its impact could be even greater in high-end warfighting. It’s interesting to juxtapose this news with the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency’s announcement three days before the budget papers were released. That made public that the sale of up to 200 AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles to Australia for US$990 million had been approved. Australia’s acquisition of LRASMs was good news, a welcome enhancement to the ADF’s maritime strike capability that is seriously outgunned by regional capabilities. But the ADF can’t take full advantage of the weapon’s 500+ kilometre range without sophisticated long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

That said, the Triton is a very expensive aircraft, more even than the F-35. It may be an unmanned system, but it is more like a traditional manned platform in that its exquisite capability makes it exquisitely expensive, resulting in very small numbers in our inventory. The Iranians managed to shoot down its sibling, the Global Hawk, so the Chinese may well be able to handle a Triton. A fleet of six doesn’t allow for losses, but do we want to stock up on more at a cost of hundreds of millions each?

Are the Triton’s woes actually a blessing in disguise for Australia then? Maybe, but currently there’s no direct alternative to the Triton on the market (and if there were, it would likely cost about the same). Filling its role across the spectrum of operations with a combination of other assets such as P-8A manned maritime patrol aircraft and satellites will not be straightforward or cheap and it won’t happen soon. Swarms of small drones don’t (yet) have the range and endurance needed, and much of the cost of the Triton is in getting autonomous systems to operate reliably over very long ranges anyway.

It doesn’t appear that our $200 million contribution to the Triton cooperative program gave us much say in its future. While a constant flow of senior US visitors to Canberra over the past couple of years has proclaimed that the US’s competitive advantage lies in its allies and Australia is its closest ally, we are still subject to the vagaries of the US system.

Cooperative programs are not necessarily all bad if they mean you have a greater ability to get exactly what you need, but in one sense they mean you are buying yourself a bigger share of the risk. If the US offers us an option to fill the ISR gap, we might want to exercise a little caution and be very sure the program is at the heart of US priorities as well as our own.