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Triton’s Role in Australian Defense and Deterrence - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Triton’s Role in Australian Defense and Deterrence, 6 April 2023

I have followed the progress of Triton in the coming of the 21st century U.S. Navy kill web enterprise for some time.

The first interview I did focusing on Triton was during a 2011 visit to San Diego.

In an interview with Commander Johansson, the P-3 commander looked towards the future: “I’m not a big fan of calling them unmanned anymore. I call them remotely-piloted, because it takes a lot of people to operate these systems. We moved to the family of systems (BAMS and P-8) because we felt that we could move some of the persistent ISR capabilities to a more capable platform, BAMS.

“BAMS long dwell time can provide the persistence necessary more efficiently than a rotation of P-8 24/7/365. Also, if we used P-8 to do that we would have to increase squadron manpower to give them the necessary crews to fly 24/7 MDA in addition to the ASW/ASUW missions. We hope to have 5 orbits flying 24/7/365 to cover the maritime picture were required. The great thing about BAMS and P-8 is that they can work together to meet the COCOMS requirements.”

That was in 2011 and through visits to Norfolk and to Jax Navy in more recent periods, I have been able to document the standup of this teaming arrangement by the U.S. Navy to create a whole new capability in delivering layered ISR for the fleet. In fact, it is a major part of why the Navy is able to craft a maritime kill web force.

As we wrote in our book on the subject: “The U.S. Navy is crafting a significant paradigm shift, one which we call the kill web. In some ways, this shift is akin to the famous comment in a play by the 17th-century French playwright Molière that Monsieur Jourdain has been speaking prose for all his life but not knowing that he had. The kill web shift with the current force lays down a foundation from which to incorporate new platforms and technologies over the next phase of maritime force operations and development. No better case in point is the maritime patrol reconnaissance force.

“This is a force which was defined by the P-3 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft flying “alone and unafraid” to its displacement by a “family of systems” which work together to deliver distributed but integratable kill webs capabilities to the force, both naval and joint. And as this “family of systems” shapes a new ecosystem working with the fleet, that ecosystem shapes key challenges which need to be resolved as part of the expansion of maritime autonomous systems or passive sensors added to platforms throughout the fleet.”[1]

But the U.S. Navy is not doing this alone and as one U.S. Navy Admiral referred to their global partnerships as shaping “kill web matesmanship.” No force in the world is more important in this journey than the ADF. But the ADF, unlike the U.S., does not have a naval air force; they have an air force which operates in an integrated fashion with its Navy.

During one visit to Australia, I went to the base where the ADF is building the operational facility integrating P-8 with Triton. In 2017, I visited RAAF Edinburgh, which is near Adelaide in South Australia and I had a chance to discuss the standup of the base and to look at the facilities being built there.

Now six years later, I was able to get an update on the Triton piece of the effort from Jake Campbell, Triton Program Director, Northrop Grumman Australia. At the recent Williams Foundation on the way ahead for the Australian deterrence effort, Campbell provided an overview on how layered ISR capabilities provide Australia with deterrence capabilities across the spectrum of the deterrence options.

During the presentation, he really did not focus a great deal on Triton specifically, but later we sat down to do an interview where he did precisely that. I asked him to provide an update on the program.

Jake Campbell: “Triton has been supporting USINDOPACOM since 2020 as part of early operating capability. The early operating capability deployment to Guam proved Triton’s invaluable capabilities for the maritime patrol and reconnaissance mission. Meanwhile, Australia’s Triton program is making great progress with the rollout of the first aircraft from Northrop Grumman’s facility in Palmdale California in Sept. of last year.

“The government is committed to three airplanes plus the associated ground systems. The facilities are being built at RAAF Edinburgh where they are building out the ground facilities right now. We will start rolling out the system late this year into next year. The first airplane will arrive in Australia mid-next year and first flight as soon as possible after that.

“The first two Australian airplanes are currently in Palmdale going through the process of evaluation and finalization. The third one will soon join the other two in Palmdale. We will do the final shakedown flights there and then they will go to Pax River Naval Air Station for the process of finalization before being delivered to Australia.”

Australia is tapping into what for the U.S. Navy is a mature production process but the Navy now is adding a new payload to the Triton – the multi-SIGINT package.

The U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman are fully immersed in delivering the multi-intelligence configuration of Triton, which will provide commanders an unprecedented amount of information to support critical decision making. The multi-intelligence payload includes a Northrop Grumman ZPY-3 Multi-Function Active Sensor (MFAS) electronically scanned surveillance radar under the fuselage; a Raytheon DAS-3 electro-optic, infra-red (EO/IR) sensor under the nose; as well as SIGINT Sensors.

This common configuration on Triton will allow the RAAF and U.S. Navy to share data easily and provide a significant contribution to the ‘kill web’.

Australia is on both the P-8 and Triton as a cooperative partner and that means that they are part of the ongoing development of the systems which allows customization to their needs as well.

As Campbell underscored: “Because Australia is a cooperative partner in the program, Defence here gets to influence requirements for the future evolution of the program. The mission control stations will be at Edinburgh but the Triton will fly out of RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory”

The fact that the U.S. and Australia will fly the same airplane but into complimentary but different operational areas and environments will have an important impact as well on the future development of the program, in terms of shaping new requirements going forward.

Campbell noted: “Australia has the potential to operate Triton well south to Antarctica, across the Indian Ocean, across the Southwest Pacific as well as North into Asia. This will give Australia unique experience with Triton compared to the U.S. Navy. And both experiences will flow back into the program.”

We then discussed the unique capability which Triton contributes to the layered ISR system which Australia is constructing and which Campbell discussed in his Williams Foundation presentation. Capbell continued:”“In my talk, I emphasized the need to have a layered ISR capability, which is from space to undersurface, and everything in between. There is no one capability that will do everything for you in terms of intelligence collection.

“Space provides some capability, but obviously there’s limitations in the sense that it’s very predictable. Whereas Triton still has the advantage of perspective by operating well above 50,000 feet. It is also persistent, and it has uncertainty in terms of an adversary understanding when it might be in the area of operation, so that’s a significant advantage, the ability to operate at range for an extended period, at the time and choosing of the operator.

“And with the increase in the submarine threat, you want P8 to be focusing on that mission, much more so than then just doing standard ISR missions. Triton frees up the P8 to be able to go and focus on more of the ASW and other high end warfighting missions.”

While Australia and the U.S. have a variety of means to collect information on maritime activities, Triton provides a unique capability for persistent awareness across the vast and complex environment of the APR region.

As Campbell noted, “No other system can provide the range, persistence or coverage area. Satellites are limited and predictable, offering episodic coverage. Manned reconnaissance aircraft only provide limited ISR at the sacrifice of their other missions, such ASW patrols.”

Triton’s high-altitude, long-endurance capabilities make it much more than an ISR & Targeting platform. With an operating altitude greater than 50k feet, and endurance great than 24 hours, Triton can provide continuous communications relay to keep a distributed force connected to ensure commanders are operating off a shared common operational picture.

In addition, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy are continuing to progress advanced capabilities insertion and mission expansion to keep pace with the threat and ensure Triton plays a key role in helping provide a seamlessly connected fleet for information dominance, a critical step as the branch achieves its naval operational architecture to enable distributed maritime operations.

Northrop Grumman is leveraging its Triton Flying Test Bed (a manned Gulfstream IV surrogate as an uncrewed system) to research, develop, integrate, and demonstrate technologies to meet the Navy’s current and future ISR&T requirements. Just this past summer, Northrop Grumman demonstrated JADC2 across distributed platforms showcasing interoperability among F-35, MQ-4C Triton, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and surface vessels.

By leveraging MQ-4C Triton’s utility as a gateway node the aircraft showcased the ability to connect fifth-generation platforms with naval assets across a distributed maritime fleet. The first-of-its-kind demonstration was conducted in partnership with Naval Air Systems Command, Office of Naval Research, Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, and BAE Systems.

[1] Laird, Robbin F.; Timperlake, Edward. A Maritime Kill Web Force in the Making: Deterrence and Warfighting in the 21st Century (p. 194). Kindle Edition.

Featured image: The static display of a replica of the Air Force MQ-4C Triton Remotely Piloted Aircraft System at the 2023 Avalon International Airshow, Credit: Australian Department of Defence.


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