NAS PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland — The U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft program could be cut – not due to draconian budget changes but because of the aircraft’s own higher-than-expected reliability.

Capt. Jim Hoke, who manages the high-flying maritime surveillance aircraft project here, says the program of record is currently for 68 of the Northrop Grumman aircraft (plus two for testing). The operational requirement is for five "orbits" of 4 aircraft each, totaling 20 used for combat at any given time. The remaining 48 in the program of record account for spares, aircraft that would be in depot and attrition reserve. But Hoke said Navy planning was conservative in this area because the system is so new and strategists were unsure of what kind of reliability to expect from the fleet.

The Navy has not officially offered up Tritons as budget offsets. Hoke says his take on reliability is his opinion and officials will be collecting data as the system undergoes flight testing. But he suspects the data will bear out a reliability level that would allow for a smaller fleet.

This could trigger yet another battle for sales for Northrop Grumman, which has lobbied hard to keep the Air Force Global Hawk aircraft alive; Triton is based on the Global Hawk block 40 design.

The Navy soon plans to request a proposal from Northrop Grumman for the first low-rate, initial production of aircraft. The number of Tritons in this lot will be determined by the fiscal 2016 discussions now ongoing in the Pentagon, Hoke says.

Meanwhile, the Navy is close to selecting a new product for the beleaguered sense-and-avoid capability that is required on Triton to operate high and low in air space to conduct its mission, Hoke said.

At issue is funding. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor on the aircraft but selected Exelis to craft the original sense-and-avoid radar capability, which was lacking. The Navy began to conduct market research last year to see if an alternative had already been developed but found no contenders.

"If there was something on the shelf, we’d have gotten it," Hoke told reporters during a media event here Sept. 23 to celebrate the first cross-country flight of the Triton from its manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California, to NAS Patuxent River for testing.

Hoke declined to lay out the plan ahead for the sense-and-avoid capability, as it has not yet been fully approved. But he hopes to move forward with a plan before he retires in December. At issue was development needed to find a system to fit within the Triton air vehicle and to operate in the complex radio frequency environment on the jet and within available cooling.

He says the goal is to introduce it into the fleet in 2020.

The first Triton conducted the 10.8-hr. flight to Pax, which included a maximum altitude of 58,000 ft., last week, arriving early Sept. 18.

The aircraft is set to undergo inspection and electromagnetic interference testing prior to entering flight testing.

Integration of the Multifunction Active System (MFAS) radar, electronic support measures and automated identification system shipping tracker is slated by the end of the year in preparation for mission systems testing.

The Raytheon MTS-B electro-optical infrared sensor ball is already on the jet.

The second Navy development bird and another aircraft – paid for with Northrop Grumman money but available to the Navy until initial operational capability at the end of fiscal 2017 – are slated to arrive at Pax by the end of October to join the test force.

The Navy is planning for initial operational capability at that time with four air vehicles. Six months earlier, the Navy will deploy the first two air vehicles to Guam as an "early operational capability" for maritime operations in the Pacific. This came about after an earlier delay in production, the result of complications with an integrated mission computer, slipped the operational debut.

Meanwhile, the Navy is working on three separate software drops for Triton’s increasing capability. The first – 1.0 – was used for envelope expansion testing. Version 2.0 includes basic systems integration and sensor capability for use in the operational assessment for the program, which is slated for the first quarter of fiscal 2016. Synthetic aperture radar modes will not be available for the MFAS in this software drop. Nor will geolocation of targets from the ESM sensor suite. The third and final update will include all sensor functionality and be ready for introduction into the fleet in time for initial operational capability, Hoke says.

Meanwhile, testing is ongoing for the MFAS radar on a surrogate aircraft. Hoke says the radar has conducted 38 flights to date including trials of all of the radar modes. The second software release, which will be used for the operational assessment, will include the maritime search and inverse synthetic aperture radar (used for identifying and classifying ships).

Triton will ultimately be used for constant maritime surveillance in supporting the fleet with the new 737-800-based P-8 surveillance aircraft being built by Boeing.

"There is a vision where P-8 crews will – at some point – be able to control Triton," Hoke said. "I will tell you that vision is unfunded at this point."