The Coming of the Triton

By Defense.Info

The US Navy will be deploying its first operational Triton’s later this year to the Pacific.

According to an article by Sam LaGrone published in USNI News on April 10, 2018,

The Navy’s first two operational MQ-4C Triton high-altitude surveillance aircraft will start missions over the Pacific by the end of the year from a forward base in Guam, Naval Air Systems Command officials told reporters on Monday.

The pair of 131-ft wingspan UAVs built by Northrop Grumman for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions will deploy with an early set of capabilities designed for maritime ISR and will grow to include a signals intelligence function in 2021, Triton program manager Capt. Dan Mackin said in a briefing at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 exposition.

Triton will reach an initial operational capability in 2021, and the Navy will add two additional aircraft to the Guam orbit. Under the current concept of operations for the platform, four airframes will make up one 24-hour, seven-day orbit.

“One on the way out, one on station, one on the way back and one in maintenance,” Mackin said.

The first capability will combine a series of electro-optical sensors and radar to track maritime targets from as high as 60,000 feet over the ocean and compare tracks to automated identification systems on ships. A Triton will relay the information back to one of two main operating bases in the U.S. – Naval Station Mayport, Fla., and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Wash. – or to nearby P-8A Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

“One of the main reasons that the Navy decided to fund Triton was to have that teaming arrangement, to be able to communicate back and forth between P-8s and the Triton aircraft.

One of the primary missions of P-8 is to do the anti-submarine warfare and ISR, not necessarily things you want to do at the same time,” Mackin said.

“You want to give the P-8 the ability to perform the anti-submarine warfare mission while trying to high-altitude ISR mission.

“One of the things we’ll do is pass information back and forth between the two aircraft and the situational awareness of the fleet will be enhanced.

“Both aircraft have the ability to do chat, so both crews will be able to communicate back and forth.”

And last year, we visited Pax River to get an update on the Triton and that story which was published on March 14, 2018 follows:

Triton is the latest and cutting edge US Navy platform associated with advanced ISR or maritime domain awareness for the fleet.

Australia also intends to acquire 7 Tritons and other allies are looking closely as well to possible acquisition.

According to the Royal Australian Air Force:

The seven Tritons will be based at RAAF Base Edinburgh and will operate alongside the P-8A Poseidon to replace the AP-3C Orion capability.

The Triton will operate alongside the P-8A to replace the ageing AP-3C Orion capability.

But as we learned at Jax Navy air station last year, no Triton flies alone.

It is part of an overall Navy approach to distributed lethality or an evolving kill web. 

In narrow terms, the P-3 platform and mission are being replaced by the P-8 and Triton dyad.

But given the nature of both the evolving data sphere as well as decision-making approach, the P-8, F-35, Triton, and Advanced Hawkeye are all key elements in the flying part of distributed lethality for the Navy-Marine Corps team.

It is a key part of the evolving sensor-shooter system being shaped to allow for distributed operations.

It is clearly a work in progress but it is a decisive shift from the legacy approach as well.  With regard to Triton and P-8, the US Navy will operate them as a dyad.

The USN is approaching the P-8/Triton combat partnership, which is the integration of manned, and unmanned systems, or what are now commonly called “remotes”. The Navy looked at the USAF experience and intentionally decided to not build a Triton “remote” operational combat team that is stovepiped away from their P-8 Squadrons.

The teams at Navy Jax and Pax River are building a common Maritime Domain Awareness and Maritime Combat Culture and treats the platforms as partner applications of the evolving combat theory.

The partnership is both technology synergistic and also aircrew moving between the Triton and P-8.

The P-8 pilot and mission crews, after deploying with the fleet globally can be assigned significant shore duty flying Tritons. The number of personnel to fly initially the Tritons is more than 500 navy personnel so this is hardly an unmanned aircraft. Hence, inside a technological family of systems there is also an interchangeable family of combat crews.

These new systems are all software upgradeable which sets in motion the opportunity and a need to shape new acquisition approaches to take advantage of software, which can evolve to deal with the threat environment as well.

Software upgradeability provides for a lifetime of combat learning to be reflected in the rewriting of the software code and continually modernizing existing combat systems, while adding new capabilities over the operational life of the aircraft.

Over time, fleet knowledge will allow the US Navy and its partners to understand how best to maintain and support the aircraft while operating the missions effectively in support of global operations.

The baseline Triton getting ready for deployment is an ISR platform; but will evolve into a tron warfare platform engaged in the extended battlespace.

And this evolution will be largely software driven.

What makes the Triton different from the Advanced Hawkeye, P-8 or F-35 is that it is all software driven, in that there is no man onboard, although the man in the loop will be key both to the C2 role and the proliferation of the information garnered by the platform.

And the software on the platform also derives much of its capability from the software developed for the F-35.  And onboard are scalable systems which provide for ongoing innovations in radar capability at very high altitudes.

According to Northrop Grumman, “Triton will support a wide range of missions including maritime ISR patrol, signals intelligence, search and rescue and communications relay.

The aircraft can fly up to 24 hours at a time, at altitudes higher than 10 miles, with an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.”

Again according to Northrop Grumman, there are four key systems onboard the aircraft:

A multi-function active sensor radar which provides “unprecedented 360 degree views for detecting and identifying targets at sea;

An automatic identification system which tracks ships;

An electro-optical/infrared MTS-B multi-spectral targeting system which captures both hi-res images and full motion video with multiple field of views;

And electronic support measures which identify and locate signals emitted from maritime vessels.

To get an update on the Triton, we visited Pax River and to meet with the program manager and his Triton program team.

Sean Burke  is the program manager for the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office (PMA-262), headquartered in Patuxent River, Md. He assumed command in December 2014 and is responsible for the development, production, fielding and sustainment of all persistent maritime unmanned aircraft systems, including the Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (BAMS UAS) and BAMS-demonstration program.

He was joined in the interview by  Captain Tom Hoover and Commander Daniel Papp.

We started by discussing the Triton and its synergy with other new air platforms.

“We reach out across every available relevant enterprise in the Navy and beyond to find ways to make the Triton a better platform. We have a team lead in our office focused on interoperability.

“We are looking closely at the flow of data from out platform and how best use can be made of that data.

“From a technical perspective, we are focused on sharing radar technological development.

“And that started at the outset when Northrop came in and proposed a  radar option, driven from the F-35 program, to give us something much better than the radar we were initially considering.”

And the sharing in this case between the Triton and the F-35 radar occurs at the cards, chips and processor level.

“The F-35 has a sunk cost in the cards, chips and processors to build its radar; we can use those same cards, chips and processors for ours.

“And as a software upgradeable platform upgrading those cards, chips and processors over time as well can provide improvements for the Triton as well. It is both a cost savings and technologically dynamic upgrade process.”

Both Papp and Hoover came from the P-8 program to the Triton program and illustrate the point driven home in Jax Navy of the commonality of the team developing and operating the two systems as a dyad.

“With the P-3 we of course shared data with the fleet and coalition partners.

“But the approach with P-8 and Triton is much different – it is web based. It is about sharing and acting on information in the operational force, whether to the surface ship, the Growler, the P-8 or the F-35”

And the new generation officers are growing up in this new operational environment.

“When deploying on the P-8 it was obvious that innovation started on the P-8 rail onboard the aircraft with the various systems operators.

“On the P-3, we were fairly narrowly constrained specialists; onboard the P-8 rail the operators may have a focus but are looking at the bigger picture as part of working their focus.

“And C2 is changing as well as the chat rooms established with the deployed force provide an opportunity for the operators to let one another know what is most important in their judgments about the information they are taking in – it is not just about conveying information into a giant data base.

It is about operators learning how to identify operationally the most important developments they are seeing and to convey those judgments and to send targeted information to the key elements of the combat force.”

And the Trion from this point of view is an “information sponge” but needs to be understood not simply as a collector of information but a platform manned by officers capable of making real time judgments on what they are seeing operationally.

“Our aircrews recognize that we will be the choke point if we do not pull in and disseminate simultaneously. We learned this lesson early on P-8 and are applying it to Triton.”

In other words, the P-8 and the Triton are being developed and will operate as a dyad.

“We are shaping a maritime patrol and reconnaissance community.

“It is not two communities; it is one community, which applies multiple assets.

“The operator who is flying P-8 today will be flying Triton on the next tour.

“They will flow between being P-8 to Triton crewmen.

“We view it as a body of operators within a broader community who will learn how to operate multiple forms for the same common goal of ISR and ASW in the support of the fleet.”

The team emphasized the key tactical role for the information, which the dyad generates for the fleet.

It is not about simply collecting information; it is about providing judgment as well as data to the fleet for its tactical missions.

“Our operators are looking at the tactical relevance of the information coming into the systems and providing both their judgment and data to the relevant assets engaged in the operation.

“It is the DNA of the new generation of operators to think cross platform and to think in information and decision terms.”

They emphasized as well that the Triton program is set up to have regular interactions with the deployed P-8 fleet and with those operating the initial Tritons.

“We have a very strong feedback loop with operators and maintainers in the program.

“We have close ties with the fleet in terms of their operations and the evolving role of the P-8 prior to deploying Triton.

“P-8 operators come to Pax to operate our software and provide real world experience in our testing out of our evolving Triton software.

“We marry up the test pilot trained in developmental testing with P-8 operators with real world experience in shaping our evolving software on Triton.”

The Navy liaison program becomes even more important as the Navy deploys software upgradeable platforms. As the platform cycles to the fleet, each iteration can be different and the fleet commander needs to understand what that “new” platform can contribute to the fleet.

“We are going to deploy the Tritons at Mayport which will provide a great opportunity given its proximity to Jax as well to shape cross-decking learning opportunities.

“The surface and subsurface officers know that in order for us to be successful, everyone else has to have a basic understanding of our evolving capability, so they can employ their weapons platforms more effectively.”

A challenge seen on the Triton along with other software upgradeable platforms is shaping the kind of acquisition system, which can optimize the contribution of software upgradeability.

21st century air and maritime combat power is being built around a number of multi-mission systems which are themselves software upgradeable; but there still is a legacy mindset that platforms are hardware first and software second.

This means as well that you want to get these platforms into the hands of the operators to gain operational experience to guide software development rather than too rigid of a requirements setting process which can get in the way of actually using the platform today and leveraging that operational experience to drive further development of the platform.

The Triton to be deployed next year will meet the requirements set in the 2007-2008 timeframe with the software onboard the Triton to be deployed next year.

Then the team will look to evolve that basic capability into the next platform iteration of capability.

The Navy is looking to evolve the Triton from an ISR to multi-intelligence platform.

And that will happen with the evolution of the software much more than modification of hardware, yet the acquisition system is challenged to allow for the software driven flow for such a platform, rather than prioritizing hardware over software.

Editor’s Note: For earlier articles on Triton, see the following:

Editor’s Note: On software upgradeability and 21st century air platforms, see the following:

Comments by Commander Papp as quoted in a NAVAIR article on Triton published June 22, 2016:

The Navy recently demonstrated two key capabilities for the Triton Unmanned Air System (UAS) program that will enhance future fleet operations.

During a flight test June 2, an MQ-4C Triton and P-8A Poseidon successfully exchanged full motion video for the first time inflight via a Common Data Link (CDL), marking another interoperability step for the program.

The test demonstrated Triton’s ability to track a target with its electro-optical/infrared camera to build situational awareness for a distant P-8 aircrew.

“In an operational environment, this would enable the P-8 aircrew to become familiar with a contact of interest and surrounding vessels well in advance of the aircraft’s arrival in station” said Cmdr. Daniel Papp, Triton integrated program team lead.

The MQ-4C Triton’s ability to perform persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance within a range of 2,000 nautical miles will allow the P-8A aircraft to focus on their core missions.

Last week also marked the completion of Triton’s first heavy weight flight that will expand Triton’s estimated time on station significantly. Triton operated in the 20,000 foot altitude band in the heavy weight configuration for the first time and completed all test objectives. A second heavy weight flight on June 14 had Triton operating in the 30,000 foot altitude band.

“The heavy weight envelope expansion work will enable Triton to realize its long dwell capability and become the unblinking eye for the fleet,” Papp added.

Triton is designed to fly missions of up to 24 hours at altitudes over 10 miles high, allowing the system to monitor two million square miles of ocean and littoral areas at a time. Since its first flight in 2013, Triton has flown more than 455 flight hours.

The featured graphic shows a NAVAIR Image of the operational basing for Triton.