Australia’s Triton Saga

By Marcuse Hellyer

One element of President Biden’s FY2024 defense budget that has not attracted much attention here in Australia is one that has direct implications for us – and some very practical lessons about how Defence does capability planning, acquisitions and thinks about the relative risks in working with big primes and engaging directly with other, smaller firms when technology is moving fast and lengthy processes are not your friend.

I’m talking about the termination of the US Navy’s Triton program. The MQ-4 Triton is a high altitude, long endurance uncrewed aerial system that is intended to provide maritime surveillance over very large areas. This budget announces that production of Triton will end in FY2024 with a total of 22 aircraft, well short of the US Navy’s earlier target of 70 aircraft,

That’s rather awkward for Australia. We’ve been engaged in this program in one form or another since 2006 (the history is set out in the Australian National Audit Office’s Major projects report). Defence has been planning to acquire six or seven aircraft. To date the Australian government has approved the acquisition of three aircraft with a budget of $2.777 billion. But none are yet in service despite the expenditure of $983 million to 30 June 2023,

Some readers might recall that this is not the first time Australia has been presented with uncomfortable news about Triton. In its FY2020 budget the Trump administration implemented a Triton ‘production pause’ for FY2021 and FY2022. This created a significant degree of uncertainty for Australia; it suggested the US government was less than committed to the program and there were no guarantees it would restart. Even if it did resume production, it could be for a smaller number of aircraft, resulting in higher through life costs for Australia as it would own a larger percentage of the total fleet. Defenders of the program argued that the pause was a short-term savings measure to free up funding for President Trump’s wall and the US Navy remained committed to the program.

Despite the uncertainty, the Australian government approved acquisition of its third aircraft, in part to help the US Navy and Northrop Grumman keep the production line ticking over until the US government could restart the program.

In the FY2023 budget, the Biden administration did resume production, but it only set out production numbers for the next two years. Moreover, the budget stated, ‘the program continues to collaborate with the Joint Staff regarding follow-on validation of program requirements’ (see page 185). That validation exercise has now resulted in total program numbers being cut to 22 in the FY2024 budget.

It’s not clear why the US reduced the program so dramatically, but there have been numerous indications that it is unwilling to invest in expensive aircraft that are not survivable in the threat environments that will need to operate in. The US Air Force ended production of the MQ-9 Reaper medium altitude UAS for that reason. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the US Navy also baulked at the US$200+ million unit cost an aircraft that could be shot down by relatively unsophisticated air defences.

Where the abrupt conclusion to the Triton program leaves Australia is unclear. Since the three aircraft Australia has ordered are in production, they will be completed. But can we order the final three or four? And would we even want to?

Senator Linda Reynolds asked at Senate estimates hearing in May this year whether three Triton aircraft would be sufficient to support long range strike and whether three aircraft would be sufficient to operate in both the South China Sea and Southwest Pacific simultaneously. The Department of Defence provided a one-word answer of ‘yes’ to both questions.

But it’s hard to see how that could be correct. And with only three aircraft split between two areas of operation, it’s simply not possible to sustain a continuous presence in either. If it was, why were we intending to get six or seven? And why was the USN aiming for 70?

Moreover, three of anything is a very fragile capability. It will, for example, be difficult to sustain critical trades with a fleet of only three. But if we order the final three or four before production closes, we’ll own close to one-quarter of the combined fleet—and since we are part of a cooperative program with the US Navy (that cost us $200 million to enter), we’ll be on the hook for a commensurate share of through life costs such as software and hardware upgrades. Furthermore, if the US Navy decides operating the rump fleet isn’t worth the cost, we could be left as the sole operator, an even more awkward position to be in.

According to the Australian National Audit Office’s most recent major projects report we won’t achieve initial operational capability until sometime between July 2025 and June 2026, or in other words, around 20 years after we embarked on this journey. Even before the president’s FY2025 budget was released, Australia’s final operational capability was scheduled to be between July 2030 and June 2031—that’s around 25 years after we started.

What actual capability this long, winding process will ever deliver is not clear. Nor is the number of dollars we’ll have spent by the time we get wherever there is. But it’s useful to ponder any lessons we can draw from the long, expensive process.

The first is that we simply can’t afford to pursue programs that last for decades before they deliver any capability—particularly ones in the rapidly changing fields of autonomous systems and surveillance sensors. Australia’s loss of strategic warning time doesn’t afford us that luxury. Moreover, the world changes over such extended periods.

The contested operating environments are now too dangerous for something like Triton, but other systems can perform surveillance in uncontested environments more affordably. For example, some of the roles that Triton was to perform can now be done cheaply and reliably by commercial satellite constellations. So twenty years down the track, it’s not clear there’s a place for Triton—even before we’ve gotten anything out of it.

The second is that we need to move beyond the double standard that assumes US Department of Defense programs and multinational primes are a safer bet than small or new players in the field of military technology.

Twenty years ago, if an Australian small-to-medium enterprise had pitched an idea to Defence to deliver wide area surveillance—but there was a risk Defence would have to wait twenty years before it got anything useful—they would have been laughed out of court. And yet that’s we have decided to do with the US DoD and Northrop Grumman. Meanwhile start up companies are delivering wide-area surveillance through other means.

The third is that this isn’t the way to take advantage of the benefits of uncrewed and autonomous systems. Yes, Triton has no people on board, but when an uncrewed platform becomes as large and as complex as a traditional crewed aircraft, it’s going to have similar technical, schedule and cost risks. And that means it will become really expensive. So it needs more systems on board to minimise the likelihood of losing it. Which increases the complexity. And so on.

We need to be pursuing autonomous systems because their potential to provide affordable mass, not exquisite cost and complexity. At $983 million and counting for three aircraft, Australia’s Triton program is the very antithesis of affordable mass.

And finally, great powers are going to do what great powers do—which is to act in their own interests. The US government is always going to make decisions about its programs that reflect its own priorities. Australian contributions to US programs, while welcomed by the US, will not determine the fate of those programs. AUKUS doesn’t change that.

Dr Marcus Hellyer is Head of Research at Strategic Analysis Australia.

Published by Strategic Analysis Australia