The MQ-4C Triton was developed by Northrop Grumman, the world’s foremost developer of heavy military drones, as an advanced long range surveillance platform for the United States and a number of its allies. The platform’s weight of 14,628kg matches that of the Northrop’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, and makes it one of the world’s two largest and heaviest unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in military use.
Incorporating a number of common features with the Global Hawk, the platform has been designed for long range patrol rather than surveillance and incorporates a reinforced airframe and wing, de icing and lighting protection systems and sophisticated sensor suites allowing the platform to track ships over vast distances.
Commenting on the MQ-4C’s capabilities and their potential usefulness to the U.S. military Mike Mackey, Northrop Gumman’s Triton UAS program director, stated: “During surveillance missions using Triton, Navy operators may spot a target of interest and order the aircraft to a lower altitude to make positive identification. The wing’s strength allows the aircraft to safely descend, sometimes through weather patterns, to complete this manoeuvre.”
The U.S. Navy is set to deploy the MQ-4C to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, where it will monitor shipping across much of the vast Pacific Ocean. The platform’s long range, 30 hour endurance, and ability to operate at 18,000 meter altitudes, well above commercial airliners and most fighter aircraft, makes it ideal for such a task.
The deployment comes at a time of growing tensions between the United States and China,, and the U.S. has made extensive efforts to gain intelligence on China’s militarisation of a number of recently constructed South China Sea islets where the Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has deployed large amounts of sophisticated equipment including air defences, jammers and advanced air superiority fighters.
The large drone’s ability to link maritime target data collected by its electro optical sensors back to ground data centres on Guam, Hawaii and elsewhere could thus make it an invaluable asset.
U.S. Navy Captain Dan Mackin stated regarding another reason for the military’s deployment of the Triton to the Pacific: “One of the main reasons that the Navy decided to fund Triton was to have that teaming arrangement, to be able to communicate back and forth between P-8s ( Poseidon submarine hunters) and the Triton aircraft. One of the things we’ll do is pass information back and forth between the two aircraft and the situational awareness of the fleet will be enhanced. Both aircraft have the ability to do chat, so both crews will be able to communicate back and forth.”
With the U.S. military facing growing threats from sophisticated anti satellite capabilities under development in China and a number of other potential adversaries, which threaten to leave U.S. forces blind in the event of war, the induction of new surveillance and patrol UAVs is a key means to diversify sources of intelligence.
With U.S. drones having recently proven highly vulnerable to jamming from Russian electronic warfare units in Syria and Crimea, not to mention having a state of the art RQ-170 stealth drone hijacked and landed by Iran’s own electronic warfare units in 2011, whether drones will be at all survivable operating near Chinese military facilities and whether therefore the United States will be able to rely on them in the event of open conflict remains uncertain.