Just when concerned observers, weapons developers, lawmakers and other critics began to lament the “lower-than-expected” numbers emerging from the administration’s budget proposal, and advocates for medium-to-large drones began to fear that upgraded platforms such as the Triton maritime surveillance drone might be reduced or even eliminated, there is reason to rethink those worries.
While there is what the Navy calls a “procurement pause” regarding Navy plans to acquire some new platforms such as MQ-4C Tritons, service leaders appear quite committed to the longevity of the drone, in part through a series of massive upgrades in the areas of Multi-Intelligence gathering capability and targeting technology. While the Navy is both clear and specific to say the Triton is not an armed platform, the drone is now being configured with advanced new "targeting, command and control" technologies, a development which naturally at very least raises the question as to whether it might one-day fire Hellfire missiles, Maverick Rockets, Hydra 70s or even drop glide bombs. The Triton already does targeting missions, yet the Navy is now deeply immersed in a series of new, high-tech enhancements which seem to indicate the service is transitioning the drone into a major maritime warfare platform
“Investment in MQ-4C’s Multi-Intelligence configuration is critical to the execution of the Navy's Maritime Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance and Targeting Transition Plan that will enable the sundown of the legacy EP-3E,” Navy spokeswoman Courtney Callaghan told The National Interest.
The Triton drone, a Navy specific Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance asset now operating in the Pacific theater, has been specifically engineered to operate in a maritime environment, meaning it can change altitude as needed, track moving targets on the ocean, sense through weather obscurants and function with “de-icing” technologies for extreme environmental conditions. It uses “Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar,” an imaging technology which develops rendering or two-dimensional images of high-value targets by tracking “movement” at sea.
Despite this tactical advantage, there are only a few Triton’s operating in the Pacific, leading some to believe more might be needed to address the threats and vast geographical expanse of the region. However, while procurement of new Tritons may be “paused” at the moment, Navy officials tell The National Interest that it is now immersed in a series of targeting and command and control upgrades to the Triton in order to prepare it for a long-term service life.
During testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on the Department of the Navy FY 2022 Budget Request on June 15, 2021, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday explained the service’s emphasis upon ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) hardening, reliability, targeting, networking and command and control.
"The two biggest challenges that we're getting after on unmanned are one – reliability. So, the engineering plants have to be reliable so they can operate primarily unattended. The second is command and control and we feel like we're on a good path on both. But…we don't have any intentions of scaling any of these efforts until we get to a place where we're comfortable with both of those aspects,” Gilday said.
Stating that “since arriving in Guam in January 2020, MQ-4C has executed over 2,100 ISR hours which has enhanced maritime situational awareness in the theater,” Callaghan seemed to indicate the Navy’s commitment to “targeting” upgrades for the Triton.
Targeting, command and control, long-range sensing and extensive multi-domain networking are a few reasons why the service may be looking for drones like the Triton to fly in future high-end warfare environments, despite being less stealthy than other smaller drones.
Despite the Navy’s current “procurement pause” regarding the MQ-4C Triton maritime warfare drone, the ongoing upgrades to the platform may point to service plans to configure the platform for major combat on the ocean, and possibly even fire weapons.
“FY22 continues the MQ-4C procurement pause that will focus efforts on the development of the Multi-Intelligence capability to achieve an Initial Operational Capability in FY23,” Callaghan said.
While long term plans often evolve and are subject to change, the technological enhancements to Triton would appear to indicate a strong Navy resolve to add more Triton’s in the future and sustain the platform for decades. This may reflect upon a growing realization that, despite being larger and “less-stealthy” per say, a Triton drone can draw upon evolving technologies and specific attributes to massively enhance its operational impact and greatly strengthen its survivability should it be needed against a technologically advanced great power adversary.
Advancements with sensor range and image fidelity, for instance, can now enable medium-sized and larger drones to operate with massively improved imaging precision, something which makes it possible for a Triton to effectively perform missions at much higher altitudes and therefore less detectable to enemy fire. Also, command and control upgrades, such as those now being focused upon by the Navy, can increase secure networking capacity for the drone such that it can operate in a surface-air kind of multi-domain capacity and quickly exchange time-sensitive data with other drones, surface ships and even fighter jets and bombers.
Many of these developments seem to indicate that larger, less-stealthy drones like the Triton, while perhaps initially thought of as primarily suited for an uncontested environment, are being adapted, upgraded and improved to function in a dangerous, contested, high-end combat scenario. The Navy is clear to avoid saying the Triton will be an armed drone, however the rapid integration of new targeting technology may open avenues in that direction. While the Triton already does substantial targeting missions, newer innovations are enhancing its capacity to track targets, relay information and even attack. It certainly does seem clear that, given command and control, targeting and ISR technical advances, a drone like the Triton may be positioned to add unique value to future warfare in ways that might not have been anticipated.
Clearly the intent here seems to be to improve the combat mission envelope for the Navy Triton 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 newer targeting efforts appear to potentially take the speed, efficiency, processing power and command and control targeting functionality to a new level, perhaps with a specific mind to more fully evolving the Triton as a major warfare platform.
This is quite significant because it seems to indicate that the Navy sees a crucial continued role for the Triton, alongside the service’s concurrent work on smaller, stealthier drones and dispersed, yet-highly-networked platforms. Smaller drones may not have the endurance capacity to cover vast distances in places like the Pacific? They may not be able to operate with as large or as capable a sensor payload and may therefore be less precise when it comes to targeting applications? While well-suited for closer-in attack, stealthy drones may have a limited fuel-carrying capacity given that it needs to retain a stealthy configuration. Larger fuel tanks can of course impact the size, shape and potential detectability of a platform, making it operate with fewer stealthy attributes with less wing-body blended or horizontal structures without shapes and contours likely to generate a return radar signal. This being said, it certainly does not seem a foregone conclusion that something like a Triton would necessarily be highly detectable in some respects, given its ability to use range, altitude and endurance to elude enemy sensors. Also, it might also make sense to consider that a Triton, while larger than smaller drone swarms or less-stealthy than other platforms, is perhaps much more advantageous and survivable for attacking forces than a large, manned, fixed-wing surveillance plane likely to be seen and shot down and likely limited to lower altitudes.
It certainly seems possible to arm a drone like the Triton, given existing technologies and fast-emerging new ones. Perhaps, if controlled by a human decision maker much like a Reaper, a Triton could carry its own mobile arsenal of firepower to a certain extent? This may impact range to some extent, however with the ability to Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar to find, track and follow moving maritime targets, and then quickly network the target data, a Triton could attack enemy ships or even coastal targets at less detectable stand-off ranges. Having an organic or built-in arms capability for the Triton would, it seems clear, massively shorten the sensor-to-shooter curve and enable the drone to make rapid strikes when high-value targets emerge. Maybe it could even attack an enemy submarine should it come close to the surface to communicate?
What might it fire? Quite a question. Of course it could fire Hellfire missiles, perhaps Maverick or even air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X now being configured for the Reaper.
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.