The Navy’s Guam-based Triton drone has several critical missions to carry out. It flies missions to surveil and protect Taiwan from a possible Chinese invasion and patrols the South China Sea. The drone also helps ensure the safe passage of vessels through strategically vital waterways near Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.
Operating with a large 130-foot wingspan up to altitudes greater than 50,000 feet, the Triton is engineered for High Altitude Long Endurance drone missions in a maritime environment, with an altitude limit of nearly ten miles, and operational range of 8,200 nautical miles and ability to remain airborne for more than twenty-four hours.
Its utility to ongoing training and war preparations, particularly in the Pacific, may be one reason why the less stealthy drone is being massively upgraded and sustained by the Navy, as evidenced by the nearly $400 or more in 2021 budget funding the Pentagon has allocated for the Triton. (The Triton funding is also included in the $600 million budget for its Air Force counterpart, the Global Hawk.)
Using specially configured maritime sensors and radar systems, the Triton can cover broad areas out on the ocean in a single mission. The idea is to provide ship commanders with an ability to detect and see targets, threats and items of interest in real time from great distances using the sensors, cameras and data-links on the drone.
The Triton, based in Guam for more than a year now, is built with special de-icing technologies such as a heated engine inlet to prevent ice build-up, an ability to quickly change altitude, and lighting protection technologies with a reinforced fuselage and wing, Navy and Northrop Grumman developers have explained. Since identifying ships, watercraft and coastal items are part of the Triton’s mission set, the aircraft is engineered to ascend and descend to optimize target identification. Earlier in the program’s development, one Navy official explained that the Triton’s ability to quickly operate effectively while changing altitudes enables it to function “beneath the weather.”
The Triton brings a substantial tactical advantage to the Pacific, in particular, given the often-discussed “tyranny of distance” phenomenon known to cause challenges in the region. The vast expanse of territory and oceans throughout the Pacific naturally makes reconnaissance missions much more difficult. The Triton’s range and reach, therefore, is designed to connect various nodes across dispersed areas, including land weapons, aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and other naval combat assets. Because Triton provides a complete maritime domain awareness system with capability to detect, track and identify maritime vessels over a large field of regard, it is ideally utilized in a manned-unmanned teaming construct to enable more focused missions by manned platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon, the Navy’s torpedo-armed sub-hunting reconnaissance plane. A drone platform able to better network and connect dispersed or dis-aggregated maritime forces brings significant new tactical implications for a modern threat environment.
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.