Last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia would procure the MQ-4C Triton from Northrop Grumman to partially fulfill its mission requirement for a maritime surveillance platform. The announcement not only marks Northrop Grumman’s first foreign customer for the Triton, but it also caps one of Australia’s more complicated defense procurement stories.
The tale begins 13 years ago when Australia initially considered buying the RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), an earlier variant offered by Northrop Grumman. In 2001, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was seeking a surveillance platform that could monitor Australia’s vast maritime borders for illegal fishing vessels, boats with illegal immigrants, smugglers, and hostile vessels. The capabilities of the Global Hawk, in particular, had impressed the RAAF. The UAV can fly at altitudes higher than commercial jets and travel from Darwin on the north coast of Australia to Sri Lanka and back in one flight. The drone’s sensors and signal intelligence equipment are also some of the most advanced options in UAV technology.
Furthermore, the aging inventory of RAAF’s current maritime platform, the P-3 Orion, would need to be replaced in the foreseeable future. To fill the coming mission area gap, the RAAF planned to purchase a combination of UAV’s and P-8A Poseidon. With this combination, the RAAF imagined a future where it could have near constant surveillance over a 40,000 square nautical mile area. The plan to procure eight P-8A Poseidons was finalized in 2007, but the decision to procure the MQ-4C’s was not so quick or simple.
In the mid-2000’s, the US Navy announced that it would develop a maritime version of the Global Hawk called the MQ-4C Triton. Considering that Australia’s original requirements specifically called for a maritime platform, this seemed like a perfect fit. The administration of Prime Minister John Howard put its plans to procure the Global Hawk variant on hold, and invested $100 million in the Triton project instead. However, when the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd came to power in December 2007, pressure from the pilot-oriented RAAF and skepticism about the maturity of unmanned platforms led the government to delay making a decision about whether or not to procure the Triton. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s administration continued this policy through 2013. Despite this indecision, Australia’s triennial defense capability plans continued to outline a requirement for an unmanned maritime surveillance platform in project AIR 7000 Phase 1B during this time period.
When Prime Minister Abbott came to power in September of last year, he quickly announced his intention to increase defense spending to 2% of Australia’s GDP by 2024. Additionally, the administration confirmed its commitment to buy an initial batch of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. However, in the same announcement, the administration left the question of the Triton procurement open, saying “The Coalition is committed to bolstering our defence capabilities – we are committed to acquiring Joint Strike Fighters to bolster Australia’s air defences and we believe there is merit in acquiring new state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles.”
Then in January 2014, Minister for Defence David Johnston again highlighted the need for an unmanned maritime surveillance platform and brought the possibility of a Triton procurement back to the forefront. In an interview, Johnston said “You can’t have 11 to 15 crew flying out, you know, thousands of miles away from home every second day of the week, so we have to manage our broad area maritime environment, and this Global Hawk from Northrop Grumman is one of the better opportunities.” In late February, Johnston was also rumored to be on the verge of recommending that the cabinet’s national security committee grant the Triton procurement program (AIR 7000 Phase 1B) first pass approval, setting up the program for a contract award announcement, which was finally announced last Thursday.
While the Australian government confirmed that it will buy the Triton from Northrop Grumman, it has not specified the number of units to be procured or the cost of the contract, deferring that decision until 2016. From previous budget statements and defense procurement plans, though, Avascent Analytics estimates that at current growth rates, the Australian budget would allow for the procurement of 7 units at $3 billion given current programs of record and out-years requirements.
The timing of the project is less obvious. The Triton’s original customer, the US Navy, is still testing the UAV for its own purposes with a planned initial operational capability (IOC) in 2017, which has already been delayed by two years from 2015. Additionally, the US Navy must prove that the technology works before Australia will fully commit to buying the Triton drones. Australia’s procurement would necessarily begin after 2017, and if a new government is elected in the meantime, the Triton procurement could be delayed again. However, taking these possibilities into consideration, Avascent Analytics estimates that the Triton program will likely begin in 2018, with a moderate risk of slipping by 1-3 years.
While the Triton announcement removes some of the uncertainty that has surrounded Australia’s defense procurement in the past few years, there are still major outstanding issues for the Abbott administration to address, including the particulars of Australia’s Future Submarine program. A much anticipated white paper due out next year should answer some of the most pressing questions, and perhaps shed more light on the government’s specific procurement plan for the Triton.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans)