The advent of new networking connectivity and next-generation command and control systems are quickly changing the operational landscape for drones in position to massively shorten sensor-to-shooter time, reduce latency and expedite multi-domain targeting and attack.
This prospect, which is not only gaining traction but surging into new levels of mission functionality, is expanding the tactical scope for drone surveillance missions, enabling some of the larger unmanned platforms to accelerate a transition from counterterrorism and counterpiracy to great power warfare preparations.
Larger, less stealthy yet highly impactful platforms such as the Air Force Global Hawk and Navy Triton have for several years now been upgraded as part of a decided transition to major nation-state conflict contingencies. They are high-altitude systems with upgraded, long-range high fidelity sensing, additional fuel capacity for endurance and added range and extended dwell time over critical mission areas.
Now the Navy and Northrop Grumman are taking a new series of steps to prepare the maritime-focused Triton drone with new targeting and collision avoidance technology. The largest inspiration for this appears to be grounded in the Pentagon’s growing success in networking the force for multi-domain, cross-platform target-identification and data sharing. Connecting “any sensor to any shooter,” at the “speed of relevance” is how Air Force European Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian recently described it to The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies.
This kind of effort to massively expedite Triton-specific sensor-to-shooter analysis was mentioned by Navy Capt. Dan Mackin, Triton program manager, in a news report from Janes.
“Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation is providing Triton-centric sensor-to-shooter analysis in support of Distributed Maritime Operation (DMO) concepts,” Captain Dan Mackin, USN Triton programme manager, said in the Janes story. “Triton is not armed. Triton’s platform and surveillance posture provide a unique sensor capability to locate and target enemy combatants and relay targeting data for prosecution.”
Clearly the intent here is to improve the combat mission envelope for the Navy drone by, among other things, enhancing its ability to track and instantly transmit target details to “shooters” or “effectors” in position to strike. The Triton already performs extensive long-range surveillance missions, yet this effort appears to potentially take the speed, efficiency, processing power and command and control targeting functionality to a new level. Also, given the growing ranges possible for air-launched weapons and breakthrough advances in targeting and guidance systems, it certainly seems conceivable that a Triton could someday itself be armed with weapons. However, the Navy has absolutely been very clear that no decision along those lines has been made, and perhaps it is not even part of the current thinking. After all, Capt. Mackin told Janes “Triton is not armed.”
“Altitude and endurance are also the ideal characteristics to enable Triton as a communication gateway in support of Project Overmatch objectives. “We are committed to delivering a near-term warfighting capability to connect dispersed naval assets with the data they need to execute challenging missions.” Doug Shaffer, vice president and program manager, Triton programs, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest.
The Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy is, among other things, deeply invested in better arming the entire force for major “blue water” warfare on the open ocean. Some of the earlier applications of DMO emerged as far back as 2015 with the surface Navy’s “Distributed Lethality” concept to massively upgun and better protect warships in preparation for a potential major force maritime engagement. Weapons and long range strike, therefore, are clearly fundamental to the “Distributed” portions of the Navy’s strategy implementation, given the need to more greatly disperse forces and attack with great precision from longer standoff ranges.
This is part of why the Navy is heavily emphasizing long-endurance drones, manned-unmanned teaming and surveillance assets able to span expansive, extremely vast distances across a dispersed combat area. This is one reason why the Navy and Northrop Grumman continue to upgrade the Triton drone, a large, high altitude, long-endurance drone able to dwell over areas and cover large maritime swaths of ocean on a single mission. As part of this equation, the Navy is working with Northrop to improve targeting technologies for the Triton to add new depth to its advanced, maritime specific surveillance systems.
“Triton is engineered to provide persistent, over-the-horizon targeting for the US Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations doctrine. The aircraft’s ability to remain airborne in excess of 24 hours, coupled with its altitude, will allow the Navy to hold targets at risk over a broad area for long range fires engagement to ensure sea control in a contested environment,” Doug Shaffer, vice president and program manager, Triton programs, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest.
More mission time for airborne missions in high risk areas, coupled with a great power threats in Europe or the Pacific as anticipated by the DMO strategy certainly heighten the possibility of some kind of mid-air collision with the Triton and an enemy drone, fighter jet or even fixed wing aircraft of some kind.
Yet another adaptation for major power war includes the addition of a technological ability to autonomously avoid mid-air collisions using advanced computer algorithms. Triton maker Northrop Grumman was recently awarded a contract to develop autonomous air collision avoidance. Called Sense and Avoid technologies, the integrated technical system combines sensors with high-speed computer processing to identify points of imminent collision and, in effect, autonomously redirect the aircraft to avert a mid-air crash. This kind of technology could, it seems, enable the Triton to be more effective in high-end warfare scenarios likely to present new kinds of aerial threats to its operational stability.
For several years now, Northrop has been working with Naval Air Systems Command to prototype SAA systems with a specific intent to, among other things, allow the Triton to safely operate in shared airspace with manned aircraft, a company statement explains. The effort, which includes a developmental partnership between the U.S. Navy and the Australian Royal Air Force, is supported by a larger collaborative coalition including a joint venture effort between L3Harris and Thales called Aviation Communications & Surveillance Systems.
Manned aircraft such as F-16 have, for many years now, being upgraded with a comparable technology called Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System which similarly uses computer algorithms to take over navigational control of an aircraft in the event that a pilot is incapacitated. This technology, which has now been integrated into the F-35 as well, has already been proven to save pilots lives. It also laid the foundation for ongoing Air Force Research Laboratory work to engineer an analogous technical ability to redirect aircraft in flight headed toward a mid air-collision, not unlike what is being added to the Triton by Northrop Grumman.
Kris Osborn is the 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 master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.