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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) Flying missions to surveil and protect Taiwan from a possible Chinese invasion, patrolling the South China Sea and ensuring safe passage of vessels through strategically vital waterways near Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia, are all part of the assigned critical mission scope of the Navy’s Guam-based Triton drone.
Operating with a large 130-foot wingspan up to altitudes greater than 50,000 feet, the Triton is engineered for High Altitude Long Endurance drone missions in a maritime environment, with an altitude limit of nearly 10 miles, and operational range of 8,200 nautical miles and ability to remain airborne for more than 24 hours. Its utility to ongoing training and war preparations, particularly in the Pacific, may be one reason why the less stealthy drone is being massively upgraded and sustained by the Navy, as evidenced by the nearly $400 or more in 2021 budget funding the Pentagon has allocated for the Triton. Triton funding is also included in the $600 million budget for its Air Force counterpart, the Global Hawk.
Using specially configured maritime sensors and radar systems, the Triton can cover broad areas out on the ocean in a single mission. The idea is to provide ship commanders with an ability to detect and see targets, threats and items of interest in real time from great distances using the sensors, cameras and data-links on the drone.
The Triton, based in Guam for more than a year now, is built with special de-icing technologies such as a heated engine inlet to prevent ice build-up, an ability to quickly change altitude and lighting protection technologies with a reinforced fuselage and wing, Navy and Northrop Grumman developers have explained. Since identifying ships, watercraft and coastal items are part of the Triton’s mission set, the aircraft is engineered to ascend and descend to optimize target identification. Earlier in the program’s development, one Navy official explained that the Triton’s ability to quickly operate effectively while changing altitudes enables it to function “beneath the weather.”
The Triton brings a substantial tactical advantage to the Pacific, in particular, given the often discussed tyranny of distance phenomenon known to cause challenges in the region. The vast expanse of territory and oceans throughout the Pacific naturally makes reconnaissance missions much more difficult. The Triton’s range and reach, therefore, is designed to connect various nodes across dispersed areas, including land weapons, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and other naval combat assets. Because Triton provides a complete maritime domain awareness system with capability to detect, track and identify maritime
vessels over a large field of regard, it is ideally utilized in a manned-unmanned teaming construct to enable more focused missions by manned platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon, the Navy’s torpedo-armed sub-hunting reconnaissance plane. A drone platform able to better network and connect dispersed or dis-aggregated maritime forces brings significant new tactical implications for a modern threat environment.
Potential adversaries are known to possess a wide range of advanced long-range sensors, drones and weapons - making it easier to target US Navy forces. Accordingly, the Navy is increasingly prepared to conduct more dis-aggregated missions as needed to accomplish wide-spanning objectives while functioning as a less visible or aggregated target.
This kind of approach is evidenced in the Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN document which specifically cites the need for Distributed Maritime Operations, an evolving service strategy in part brought to fruition with high-altitude, long endurance ISR.
In his NAVPLAN, CNO Adm. Michael Gilday specifically references the continued utility and importance of maritime surveillance missions in more disaggregated tactical formations, particularly given the fast increasing multi-domain networking being pursued by the Pentagon. “They (drones) will expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage, add depth to our missile magazines, and provide additional means to keep our distributed force provisioned,” Gilday says in the text of his plan.
The sensor package being designed for the aircraft includes what the Navy calls a multi-function array sensor. The Triton’s electronics include an electro-optical/infrared sensor, a 360-degree active electronically scanned array radar and inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), among other things. The sensors create a common operational maritime picture including images, data and full-motion video. An Electronic Support Measure built into the Triton is also able to detect maritime signals.
Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, sends an electromagnetic signal forward and then analyzes the return signal to paint a picture or rendering of the terrain below. SAR is primarily used for land missions, whereas ISAR is especially engineered to zero in on targets in a maritime environment.
Designed to function as a maritime version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk surveillance plane, the Triton is designed for high-altitude, long-dwell ISR missions - the kind of technology suited for the geographically dispersed Pacific theater. The Air Force already has RQ-4 Global Hawks stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
The Triton is also an autonomous air vehicle able to chart a course without needing to be remotely piloted, a technical ability expected to improve in coming years as new algorithms emerge to enhance autonomy and AI-generated sensor data. Computer algorithms and on-board systems can, for instance, increasingly enable the aircraft to account for wind, temperature and altitude conditions.
The Navy is also installing next generation aircraft avoidance systems on the Triton, such as the Automatic Response Module of the Airborne Collision Avoidance System X into the MQ-4C Triton’s avionics system.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.