What if a Chinese attack submarine were to briefly surface near the coast of Taiwan or in close proximity to U.S. and allied surface ships operating near the South China Sea? Worse, what if a U.S. Navy Poseidon submarine-hunting surveillance plane simply was not in the vicinity or able to capture the threat? Are there enough U.S. and allied intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, spread widely across thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, to sufficiently monitor these kinds of threat circumstances? Some U.S. military leaders may not be entirely sure, which is why there is a consistent chorus among U.S. commanders about the “insatiable” desire for ISR in the form of drones, surface reconnaissance assets, space sensors and surveillance planes.
This is particularly true in the Pacific, one reason why the United States has a longstanding partnership with Australia, a country which operates F-35 stealth fighters, and, among other things, collaborates with America on key weapons developments such as hypersonics testing. As part of this strategic alliance, Australia will soon operate Triton drones.
Greater numbers of new U.S. built high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance Triton drones will soon be patrolling the skies above the Australian shores, a move which further fortifies U.S and allied efforts to keep an eye on Chinese activities in vital areas such as the much disputed South China Sea. The now under construction Triton drones for Australia are slated to arrive by 2023, a development expected to further protect crucial territory in the region such as waters near Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and, Australia’s large exclusive economic zone extending just beyond its shores.
A statement from Triton builder Northrop Grumman says Australia has the world’s third largest exclusive economic zone, that territory up to 200 miles off the coast of a country where another nation needs permission from the host country to conduct economic activities in the ocean. EEZs, as they are called, are also of course crucial to security, particularly in the area near Australia given its proximity to China, the South China Sea and Japan.
“The MQ-4C Triton will be a very important ISR capability for Australia,” Air Commodore Terry van Haren, the RAAF’s air attaché to the Australian embassy, said in a Northrop statement. “It is ideally suited for Australian operating conditions, given its high altitude, long endurance, and impressive sensor suite. The Royal Australian Air Force looks forward to operating the MQ-4C alongside its other ISR and response aircraft such as the P8A Poseidon.”
The intent for Navy weapons developers is to enhance networking between the Poseidon and Triton to better expedite cross-cueing when it comes to submarine hunting. Perhaps a Triton could rely upon its expansive range and mission endurance to cover vast areas and therefore increase the likelihood that it might detect a disturbance in the surface of ocean caused by an enemy submarine? Then, the Triton could in real time cue a Poseidon submarine-hunter to move in for closer surveillance and a possible torpedo attack. Networking extensions are part of how the Navy seeks to implement its Distributed Maritime Operations strategy and mitigate the “tyranny of distance” known to characterize the vast pacific. Effective networking enables dispersed assets to close the geography gap, cover wider areas of terrain and yet sustain crucial connectivity.
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.