Why the Navy’s Triton Drone Is a Big Deal (and Worries China)

The Pentagon is increasing mission support for high-altitude, long-endurance Triton drones operating over vast areas in the Pacific with a specific mind to covering large swaths of territory with a single air vehicle.

Potential adversaries are known to possess a wide range of advanced long-range sensors, drones and weapons––making it easier to target U.S. Navy forces. In response, the Navy is increasingly prepared to conduct more dis-aggregated missions as needed to accomplish wide-spanning objectives while functioning as a less visible or aggregated target.

This kind of approach is evidenced in the Chief of Naval Operations NAVPLAN document which specifically cites the need for Distributed Maritime Operations, an evolving service strategy in part brought to fruition with high-altitude, long endurance ISR.

In his NAVPLAN, CNO Adm. Michael Gilday specifically references the continued utility and importance of maritime surveillance missions in more disaggregated tactical formations, particularly given the fast increasing multi-domain networking being pursued by the Pentagon.

“They [drones] will expand our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance advantage, add depth to our missile magazines, and provide additional means to keep our distributed force provisioned,” Gilday says in the text of his plan.

The sensor package being designed for the aircraft includes what the Navy calls a multi-function array sensor. The Triton’s electronics include an electro-optical/infrared sensor, a 360-degree active electronically scanned array radar and inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR), among other things. The sensors create a common operational maritime picture including images, data and full-motion video. An Electronic Support Measure built into the Triton is also able to detect maritime signals.

Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR, sends an electromagnetic signal forward and then analyzes the return signal to paint a picture or rendering of the terrain below. SAR is primarily used for land missions, whereas ISAR is especially engineered to zero in on targets in a maritime environment.

Designed to function as a maritime version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk surveillance plane, the Triton is designed for high-altitude, long-dwell intelligence and surveillance missions––the kind of technology suited for the geographically dispersed Pacific theater. The Air Force already has RQ-4 Global Hawks stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.

The Triton is also an autonomous air vehicle able to chart a course without needing to be remotely piloted, a technical ability expected to improve in coming years as new algorithms emerge to enhance autonomy and AI-generated sensor data. Computer algorithms and on-board systems can, for instance, increasingly enable the aircraft to account for wind, temperature and altitude conditions.

The Navy is also installing next generation aircraft avoidance systems on the Triton, such as the Automatic Response Module of the Airborne Collision Avoidance System X into the MQ-4C Triton’s avionics system.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.

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Kris Osborn