May 27, 2013
Credit: Northrop Grumman
As Northrop Grumman battles to save its high-flying Global Hawk unmanned aircraft franchise from Air Force termination, the aircraft's newer and more robust cousin, the Navy-sponsored Triton maritime surveillance aircraft, has begun flight testing.
The Triton's May 22 first flight not only breathes some life into Northrop's turbulent Global Hawk efforts—and possible hope for foreign sales—it marks progress in the Navy's quest to open up new sea-going roles for unmanned aircraft. The MQ-4C Triton, which is slated to enter service in 2015, took to the skies only days after the historic catapult launch of the tailless, stealthy X-47B from a Navy aircraft carrier deck. Once fielded in fiscal 2016, Triton will be the first Navy UAS to replace a mission currently handled by a manned system, says Capt. Jim Hoke, the Navy's Triton program manager.
After launching from Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, Calif., facility the 80-min. flight took place in restricted airspace near Edwards AFB, Calif. It was the first of up to nine envelope-expansion missions that will pave the way for more extensive systems flight trials at NAS Patuxent River, Md. The flight, though five months later than planned at the MQ-4C's unveiling last June, marks progress toward the Navy's maritime patrol modernization goal.
The two-pronged initiative, geared toward longer-range overwater surveillance as part of the renewed strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region, will see the service's aging P-3 fleet replaced by a combination of 117 Boeing P-8As, based on the company's 737, and 68 land-based MQ-4Cs.
The most advanced variant of Northrop's Global Hawk, the MQ-4C, has been in development since 2008 under the $1.16 billion Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. The Navy plans to buy 70 aircraft, including two test vehicles, for $13 billion.
The first flight is a timely boost for Northrop Grumman, which is fighting the premature termination of the U.S. Air Force's RQ-4B variant owing to cost and sensor performance issues. Germany has also announced it will not proceed with its €508 million ($655 million) EuroHawk project to outfit Global Hawk with an indigenous signals intelligence suite, due to worries over certifying the aircraft in national airspace; Berlin has one aircraft and does not intend to buy four more.
Triton's first flight coincides with support from Australia, which has requested information on the system's cost, capability and availability. As a P-8 partner that is expected to order at least eight P-8s in 2014, Canberra is eyeing a maritime patrol architecture similar to Washington's. Australia intends to replace its Lockheed AP-3Cs with P-8As, but is considering the MQ-4C for the AIR 7000 Phase 1B program. India, another likely P-8 customer, has also expressed interest in Triton.