The world's oceans are massive, easily big enough to hide a whole fleet of surface ships if not carefully monitored. That's why the Pentagon's newest Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) platform will keep its eyes peeled for enemy carrier groups from 60,000 feet (18km) up.
The Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton does over the ocean what the MQ-4 Global Hawk does over land: continuous wide-area aerial surveillance. It's designed to take over the role of the ageing P-3 Orion, complement the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a multimission aircraft based on the 737,,and relay ISR information -- specifically signal intelligence -- to both carrier groups in the region and the Joint Forces Maritime Component Commander.
The Triton measures 15m long with a 40m wingspan. A single Rolls-Royce AE 3007 turbofan powers the UAS to speeds up to 600km/h and altitudes up to 60,000 feet (18km) while toting more than 2500kg of equipment. It can then remain aloft for up to 30 hours and cover some 2000nm. Since the Triton will face different climates and conditions than the Global Hawk, many of the MQ-4C's have been re-engineered for naval operations. "The modifications include anti/de-ice, bird strike and lightning protection to meet planned mission profiles and a due regard radar for safe separation from other aircraft," Capt Jim Hoke, program manager, told Defense Tech.
The Triton's sensor payload includes a 360-degree multifunction active sensor radar array capable of spotting surface ships and missiles, EO/IR sensors, and an automatic identification system (AIS) receiver, which allows the drone to identify and classify ships based on their transponder signals. It also includes a high-res, auto-targeting camera for video surveillance and communications equipment that will allow it to act as a line-of-sight node between two ships on either side of the horizon.
This $US1.16 billion project has been in development since 2008 and debuted last June. To date, only two prototypes have been completed, though at third is nearly ready. Ground tests are scheduled to begin in late September (so as to work out any bugs in the flight software before launching the UAS).
"Ground testing signifies our steady progress toward conducting Triton's first flight," said Steve Enewold, Northrop Grumman's Triton program manager, in a press statement. "Through numerous engine runs and checks with communications systems between the aircraft and ground controllers, we can ensure that everything is working properly before entering taxi testing as the next step in our efforts."
If everything goes well with taxi tests, the program is expected to conduct Initial Operational Test and Evaluations by 2015. From there, a fleet of 68 MQ-4Cs stationed in Hawaii; Diego Garcia; NAS Jacksonville, Florida; Kadena Air Base, Japan; NAS Point Mugu, California; NAS Sigonella, Italy; and Andersen Air Force Base, Guam will take to the skies over international waters.
Picture: Northrop Grumman