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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The Pacific theater spans 100 million square miles, from the West Coast of the U.S. to the Indian Ocean and all the way to the Arctic, a reality regularly described as something which imposes a “tyranny of distance” upon U.S. and allied forces seeking to track, cover, blanket and surveil activities in the region.

“There are not many airfields and there is a lot of open water,” Air Force Pacific Commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium, upon citing that the Pacific spanned 100 million square miles.

Wilsbach was discussing the Pacific with a mind to emerging Chinese threats in the region and a need to counter rapidly modernizing Surface to Air Missiles. Interestingly, Wilsbach mentioned land and sea threats together as part of the threat equation, pointing out that, while most people tend to think of SAMS in terms of ground-based air defenses, surface ships are fast acquiring new anti-air weapons which introduce new maritime threats as well.

“We need to get into those anti-access/area-denial zones and operate in those areas so we can create effects and take down SAMS that are on the land or at sea .. and take away our adversaries' domain awareness,” Wilsbach said.

There are many ongoing efforts to address these challenges, to include F-35 sensor and weapons upgrades, the anticipated arrival of a 6th-Gen stealth fighter and, perhaps of greatest significance, additional high-tech surveillance assets. Wilsbach did mention a need for additional surveillance technology in the Pacific, raising interesting questions about the “insatiable” appetite for ISR, a dynamic requiring a particular technical capacity for maritime surveillance.

Given this scenario, one might think that there could be a need to add more Navy Triton surveillance drones in the Pacific, along with early warning aircraft and ship-operated ISR technologies. Currently, there are only two Tritons operating in the Pacific, and while that is only the early operational capability deployment there are real questions about whether the full program of record will meet demand. The current program plan for Tritons is to operate 68 of the drones, yet could there be a need for more?

While Navy officials did not comment on any specifics regarding future plans regarding the number of surveillance drones or Tritons in the Pacific, they did mention the drone’s performance in theater and talk generally about the pressing demand for more ISR.

“Triton is performing well in the Pacific and has been fully integrated as a theater ISR resource. VUP-19 (Navy Unmanned Patrol Squadron) continues to conduct direct support missions, exercise involvement, and real-world ISR operations,” Jamie Cosgrove, spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, told Warrior in a statement.

Although the Navy only operates 2 Triton drones in the Pacific, the region spans millions of miles of ocean, a scenario which introduces questions about the scale of drone operations in the Pacific and the pace at which the Navy and Air Force are accelerating plans to add more unmanned systems to the force.

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While not known for being stealthy, High-Altitude Long Endurance drones such as the Navy Triton for ocean patrols and the Air Force Global Hawk for land surveillance take on new significance in light of the Pentagon’s “network everything” Joint All Domain Command and Control program (JADC2). The JADC2 effort, which relies heavily upon manned-unmanned platform connectivity, gains in operational efficiency by virtue of having drones gather, process and transmit data to manned platforms operating at safer distances.

This is part of why the Navy and Air Force are both working to maintain and modernize its drone fleet, with a particular emphasis upon maritime surveillance in light of the South China Sea and vast expanse of the Pacific theater.

The Navy, which bases Tritons in Guam, plans upgrades to the Triton to include the addition of an “enhanced multi-mission sensor capability as part of the Navy’s Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting transition plan,” Lt. James Adams, U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs, told Warrior in a statement. 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.

Engineered with technologies specific to a maritime operational environment, the Triton operates with de-icing systems enabled by a heated engine inlet, an ability to change altitude and operate beneath the weather and cover an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles. The drone can hit altitudes up to 60,000 feet.

The Triton is engineered with an AESA, or electronically scanned array as well as an inverse synthetic aperture radar intended to generate images, data, renderings and full-motion video of relevance to commanders. Also, along with having EW capability to detect electronic signals, the drone is also autonomous in that it can account for weather conditions, adjust altitude and change course in certain circumstances without needing to be remotely piloted.

Navy senior leaders, including the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, continue to call for more assets in the Pacific, particularly drones.

“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 writes in his NAVPLAN.

Apart from any particular plan to add more Tritons, Air Force leaders seem aligned with the Navy in that there is an ongoing demand, particularly in the Pacific, for more surveillance drones and ISR platforms needed to support a broader push to enlarge the force overall.

“You know, as the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) Commander, one of the things I would show was a slide that showed the comparison between the number of platforms China would have in 2025, the number of platforms the U.S. and our allies and partners in the region would have by 2025. We’re outnumbered. But it’s not about the platforms. It’s about the capabilities,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, told an audience at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium, according to a transcript of his remarks.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn Editor-in-Chief Warrior Maven571.316.9098

Image: Northrop Grumman