Northrop Grumman Corp, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers, has unveiled Wednesday Australia’s first MQ-4C Triton during a ceremony held at its high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) aircraft production site in California.

The event showcased the continued progress of the autonomous aircraft program for both the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the US Navy (USN).

“Today marks a significant milestone for Australia and the MQ-4C Triton program,” said Tom Jones, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Aeronautics Systems. “As we get ready for final system integration and flight test, we are one step closer to delivering this extraordinary maritime awareness capability to Australia.”

As China asserts its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia’s defense ministry has increased its military capabilities in recent years, including the Triton program. The country has since worked closely to ensure that the unmanned aerial system (UAS) has met its specific requirements. In addition, in partnership with the US defense ministry, both countries can share data collected by their respective Tritons to warrant security in the “world’s most strategically important regions.”

Air Marshall Robert Chipman, chief of RAAF, said that it envisioned Triton as an “unprecedented capability to monitor and protect our maritime approaches,” and together with USN’s Boeing P-8 Poseidon, will bolster the maritime surveillance coverage of “significant areas, at longer ranges and has the ability to stay airborne longer than a traditional aircraft.”

Northrop Grumman began production of the first Australian Triton in October 2020 and reached a major production milestone by December 2021.

It is slated for production completion next year and delivered in mid-2024. It will be based primarily in Australia’s tropical north but controlled from a base near Adelaide in its south.

RAAF’s New Wingman

MQ-4C builds on the proven RQ-4 Global Hawk elements, upgrading the latter’s reinforced airframe and wing, de-icing systems, and lightning protection systems, which enables the aircraft to descend through cloud layers and gain a closer view during ISR missions. Triton also has a unique and robust mission sensor suite that provides 360-degree coverage across all sensors, allowing all-out maritime awareness.

MQ-4C Triton at Andersen AFB
A parked MQ-4C Triton at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. (US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Michael S. Murphy/DVIDS)

The unmanned aircraft has a wingspan measurement of more than 130 feet, an overall length of over 47 feet, and a height of about 15.5-inch. It is outfitted with a single Rolls-Royce AE 3007 turbofan engine generating a maximum speed of 357 mph (320 km) within 9,400 miles. It can operate up to 30 hours, providing more than 55,000 annual flight hours to the fleet. Aside from maritime ISR missions, Triton can also be used in search and rescue operations, signals intelligence, and communication relays.

Australian Forces Boost Defense Spending

Following the unveiling event, the RAAF announced that it would look thoroughly at its strategic defense review next year to decide whether to order up to four more Tritons or not. With the addition of the UAS, it will allow RAAF’s P-8 pilots “to focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) rather than splitting their attention between that and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR),” Reuters reported.

Aside from the maritime surveillance drones, RAAF previously made a deal to buy nuclear submarines from the US and Britain. It also ramped up its defense spending to about 38 billion AUD and expanded its active defense personnel by up to 80,000—a number that hasn’t been around since the Vietnam War.

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As part of this initiative, Australia entered a wide-range security agreement with the US and the United Kingdom, known as the AUKUS, in September last year. Under the deal, the countries will collaborate on constructing and maintaining a fleet of nuclear submarines, subsequently growing the Australian military force in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, the deal has received heavy criticism from its neighbors, particularly China, arguing that the agreement has given Canberra nuclear submarine technology that breaches international non-proliferation treaties (NPT), SCMP reported.

While the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director general has since clarified that the engagement under the AUKUS agreement has been satisfactory thus far, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, through its spokesperson Mao Ning, has accused the agency of turning a blind eye to international concerns.

“This report lopsidedly cited the account given by the US, the UK, and Australia to explain away what they have done, but made no mention of the international community’s major concerns over the risk of nuclear proliferation that may arise from the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation. The report turns a blind eye to many countries’ solemn position that the AUKUS cooperation violates the purpose and object of the NPT, and drew ultra vires, misleading conclusions on matters that should have been decided by member states through discussion.”

In addition, Ning stressed that the agreement “can impact the integrity, efficacy, and authority of the NPT.”