Ahead of Australia’s procurement of six MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) from the US prime, Northrop Grumman, the contractor has selected L3Harris to operate and maintain the command and control (C2) systems onboard the fleet.

Australia is a co-operative partner in the MQ-4C Triton programme alongside the US. The commonwealth acquired an MQ-4C aircraft for $1bn in June 2018 for its air force. The government’s decision to provide funding for another three of the planned six MQ-4C Triton UAS was announced in June 2020.

Among other companies in the Triton supply chain, L3Harris will provide maintenance to the aircraft’s Wideband Command, Control and Communications subsystem. Starting this month, the supplier will offer seven communications technicians and field service representatives to work with the Northrop Grumman team.

Triton will perform maritime control, signals intelligence, search and rescue and communications relay. These autonomous aircraft provide commanders with surveillance for the prediction of an adversary’s beahviour.

The Triton platform has been under development by the US Navy since 2008. It builds on elements of the Global Hawk UAS, with reinforcements to the airframe and wing. It also has de-icing and lightning protection systems, which allow it to descend through cloud layers and gain a closer view of ships and other targets at sea.

Northrop Grumman successfully completed the first flight of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Triton system at its Palmdale facility in California in November 2023. This milestone sets the scene for delivery of the first system later this year.

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The RAAF explained that its new Triton fleet will be based at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, and operated by the newly reformed Number 9 Squadron at RAAF Base Edinburgh, South Australia. It will be flown by qualified Air Force pilots from a ground station, supported by a co-pilot. 

The endurance of the Triton means that it can stay airborne for longer than a traditional aircraft where the pilot is inside. It has a range of 15,000 kilometres (km), a ceiling of 50,000 feet and a speed of 600km per hour.