The Navy has announced plans to bring the next generation of unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft to Guam, which is already home to the Air Force operated RQ-4 Global Hawk.
A pair of MQ-4C Tritons will arrive in Guam in mid- to late 2017 for initial operational tests and evaluation, according to program manager Capt. Jim Hoke.
Initial flight testing of the Triton was completed in March, which essentially cleared the aircraft to fly at “various altitudes, speeds and weights,” according to a statement from Northrop Grumman, which manufactured the drone.
The Triton is similar to the Global Hawk — both have a 130-foot wingspan — but features frame upgrades, de-icing mechanisms as well as 360-degree views at a radius of more than 2,000 nautical miles, all which make it better equipped to track ships at sea, Navy officials said. The Triton has the capability to fly 24-hour missions and monitor 2 million square miles of ocean at altitudes of more than 10 miles.
Navy officials declined to say where the unarmed drone fits into the Pacific picture, amid ongoing provocations from North Korea and territorial disputes involving China and U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines.
The drones will work in concert with the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidon, the Navy’s submarine-detecting aircraft that operates in the region.
“This change is not related to a specific event or situation,” Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Steven Curry wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes. “This is part of the U.S. Navy’s long-range plan to maintain the most capable forces forward and supports the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.”
The Triton was designed to take maritime surveillance a step further than the Global Hawk — mainstays of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that are used in the Pacific to surveil Chinese military activities and potential North Korean nuclear tests. The Global Hawks are flying out of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan for the summer.
In addition to the aforementioned improvements, the Triton was made more maritime friendly with wings toughened to withstand bird strikes and electronics designed to handle power surges associated with lightning strikes, Navy officials said. The Navy version of the drone will also have stiffer wings to allow diving below 10,000 feet to get a closer look at objects floating on the water’s surface.
The Navy’s program calls for 68 aircraft to be built, according to Northrop Grumman’s website. The drones will also be based in the Middle East, Mediterranean, as well as the eastern and western United States, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance spokesman Capt. Robert Boyer wrote in a statement to Stars and Stripes.
Boyer said Navy routinely evaluates assets and makes adjustments when it comes to defense posture in any given region.
“The Triton is expected to act as a continuous source of information to maintain the common operational and tactical picture of the maritime battle space as well as to provide combat information to operational and tactical users [such as the Expeditionary Strike Group, Carrier Strike Group and the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander],” Boyer said.
In the spring, Australia announced plans to purchase the Triton as well. Facilities and infrastructure to accommodate the drones will be built at Royal Australian Air Force Base Edinburgh, in the South Australian city of Adelaide, for approximately $140 million.