JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Navy pilots and their crews will soon fly missions spanning the globe — all the while sitting at a computer screen at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
The only training center and first operational squadron, VUP-19, for the Navy’s new MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial system — or drones — will join the air station that is quickly becoming home to much of the Navy’s most advanced technology.
The 31,000 square-feet, $15.9 million mission control center still is under construction, but will ultimately house a reconnaissance brain center that will span much of the Earth. Needless to say, when that much sensitive information is coming and going from one place, precautions are being taken.
“These joints will actually be sealed up,” project manager Celio Cedeno. “That way no signal comes in and nothing escapes.”
In addition to the mission control center, the Triton UAS Operator Training Facility is nearing completion. When it opens for business, the training facility will teach roughly 100 sailors per year to operate the Triton.
Between both, over 300 new positions will come to town.
The Tritons are intended to search vast areas of ocean with highly sensitive cameras and radar. So they won’t be armed with offensive weapons initially. However, the ability to carry ordinance underneath its 130-feet wingspan will be added later, according to Cmdr. Joe Opp, the officer in charge of the Triton training facility.
Troubling to some and embraced by others, there is no doubt that drone technology is changing the face of warfare — and once again Jacksonville Naval Air Station is at the forefront.
In addition to the base’s historic first P-8A Poseidon squadron and MH-60R helicopter operations, it will become the epicenter of Navy drone operations for the Eastern Hemisphere.
With a Rolls Royce turbofan engine and the ability to reach an altitude of 60,000 feet, the Triton boasts impressive capabilities. Though not out of reach for advanced surface-to-air missiles, its high ceiling comes with benefits.
“It’s definitely out of the reach of almost all air traffic except your research platforms like NASA and that’s for safety reasons as well as to get the maximum range,” said Cmdr. Shannon Clarke of VUP-19. “Basically it’s a big glider with a 130 feet wingspan.
“You’re basically just up there floating. I’ve never been that high.”
Meant to complement the P-8A Poseidon in reconnaissance operations, the Triton is the younger and stouter brother of Northrop Grummon’s Global Hawk currently used by the Air Force.
“In a Persian Gulf scenario, this can go up and, as of right now, 27 hours is what it can fly,” said Opp. “So it’ll go up and it can be on station for 18 to 22 hours before you bring another one in and hand [the mission] off.
“Where as the P-8, you may get four to six hours on-station time and you’re constantly rotating those planes in and out, you can send this up high, let it stay out there and once they find something, they can call in the P-8s.”
The Triton also will help reduce wear on the more expensive Poseidon by helping reduce its workload by extending the search area, Opp said. The P-8A routinely performs missions involving massive expanses of open ocean as they did helping search last spring for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
Along with working together in the air, a more practical purpose comes from basing both operations in Jacksonville.
Poseidon crew members will come to PUV-19 after completing a tour with the Poseidons, Clark said. By keeping that reconnaissance knowledge in Jacksonville, those familiar with how the two platforms work together can share their knowledge with others.
Yet for all of the command and training capabilities, chances are that Jacksonville residents won’t see any Tritons in the skies anytime soon. The Tritons are land based and will be mainly located at overseas bases. None are scheduled to be delivered to Jacksonville.