As Northrop Grumman battles to save its high-flying Global Hawk unmanned aircraft franchise from Air Force termination, the aircraft's newer and more robust cousin, the Navy-sponsored Triton maritime surveillance aircraft, has begun flight testing.

The Triton's May 22 first flight not only breathes some life into Northrop's turbulent Global Hawk efforts—and possible hope for foreign sales—it marks progress in the Navy's quest to open up new sea-going roles for unmanned aircraft. The MQ-4C Triton, which is slated to enter service in 2015, took to the skies only days after the historic catapult launch of the tailless, stealthy X-47B from a Navy aircraft carrier deck. Once fielded in fiscal 2016, Triton will be the first Navy UAS to replace a mission currently handled by a manned system, says Capt. Jim Hoke, the Navy's Triton program manager.

After launching from Northrop Grumman's Palmdale, Calif., facility the 80-min. flight took place in restricted airspace near Edwards AFB, Calif. It was the first of up to nine envelope-expansion missions that will pave the way for more extensive systems flight trials at NAS Patuxent River, Md. The flight, though five months later than planned at the MQ-4C's unveiling last June, marks progress toward the Navy's maritime patrol modernization goal.

The two-pronged initiative, geared toward longer-range overwater surveillance as part of the renewed strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific region, will see the service's aging P-3 fleet replaced by a combination of 117 Boeing P-8As, based on the company's 737, and 68 land-based MQ-4Cs.

The most advanced variant of Northrop's Global Hawk, the MQ-4C, has been in development since 2008 under the $1.16 billion Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. The Navy plans to buy 70 aircraft, including two test vehicles, for $13 billion.

The first flight is a timely boost for Northrop Grumman, which is fighting the premature termination of the U.S. Air Force's RQ-4B variant owing to cost and sensor performance issues. Germany has also announced it will not proceed with its €508 million ($655 million) EuroHawk project to outfit Global Hawk with an indigenous signals intelligence suite, due to worries over certifying the aircraft in national airspace; Berlin has one aircraft and does not intend to buy four more.

Triton's first flight coincides with support from Australia, which has requested information on the system's cost, capability and availability. As a P-8 partner that is expected to order at least eight P-8s in 2014, Canberra is eyeing a maritime patrol architecture similar to Washington's. Australia intends to replace its Lockheed AP-3Cs with P-8As, but is considering the MQ-4C for the AIR 7000 Phase 1B program. India, another likely P-8 customer, has also expressed interest in Triton.

The Navy hopes to field the first three Tritons—an early operational capability—to the 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf in fiscal 2016. Initial operational capability is slated when the fourth arrives there. The second batch is slated for operations in Asia and the Pacific. The third is going to the Mediterranean region, says Rear Adm. Sean Buck, who command's the Navy's patrol and reconnaissance group.

SDD-1, the first of two developmental Tritons, will be joined by SDD-2 in 2-3 months says Mike Mackey, Northrop's Triton deputy program director. A third developmental MQ-4C, company-funded, will join the pair at Pax River early next year for electromagnetic interference testing. Flights during the first phase will be every 7-10 days with the duration of each gradually increasing to about 12 hr.

Issues with the aircraft's integrated mission management computer and flight-control surfaces delayed the first-flight milestone. “We took a regimented and strong systems-engineering approach,” says Mackey. Vibration testing also revealed a potential coupled flutter issue in a particular “corner” of the planned flight envelope. Northrop is adding a counterbalance to the V-tail ruddervaters, Mackey says. Due to the MQ-4C's mission profile, it must be capable of flying at lower altitudes than the Air Force's Global Hawk.

In parallel, the heart of the Triton—its Multifunction Active Sensor (MFAS) radar—is flying on a Gulfstream 2 surrogate for risk reduction. Hoke says the sensor work is ahead of plan, thanks to added testing during the five-month vehicle delay. The two test vehicles are slated to be outfitted with MFAS sensors early next year in advance of flight trials at Pax River. Meanwhile, the aircraft's sophisticated suite of surveillance and communications sensors will be represented in the flight tests initially by weights.

The MFAS is designed for maritime detection, tracking and classification using maritime search, inverse synthetic aperture (ISAR) and SAR modes. To assist with target identification, the MQ-4C will also carry the Automatic Identification System, which provides information received from VHF broadcasts on maritime vessel movements around the world.

Low-rate production is set to start for Triton in fiscal 2015, a year later than planned. This has exposed Northrop to a potential production gap, as the Air Force is adamantly opposed to buying more Global Hawks and plans to mothball those now in service. Congress, however, is pushing the service to buy three more (Nos. 19-21), even though operations are not funded beyond fiscal 2014. One Air Force officer complained that this $500 million could be better spent on keeping flying squadrons—now grounded due to funding cuts—airborne. USAF still has two Block 30 Global Hawks, optimized for imagery collection, and two more Block 40s, outfitted with ground surveillance radars, to be delivered, says William Hancock, a service spokesman.

Northrop, desperate to keep the franchise alive, has offered the Air Force a fixed-price deal to reduce the Block 30's operating cost—a sore spot for service leadership—and replace the subpar Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, made by Raytheon, with the U-2's imager. The proposal includes a fixed price for 10 years of contractor logistics support with a presumed cost-per-flight-hour reduction of 40%.

“We understand the debate is around the need to reduce the operating and support cost, and the need in particular [of] operational requirements for increased range and resolution,” says Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. In a report to Congress, the Air Force says the flying-hour cost for the U-2, which Global Hawk was to replace, and the UAS are “roughly equal” at $33,564. But, “cost is not the factor,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers. Combatant commanders prefer the quality of the U-2's most recent Senior-Year Electro-Optical System (Syers) camera, made by Goodrich. Some also still insist on a need for Optical Bar Camera (OBC) images using wet film. This system is most often used for treaty verification because the images can be more easily shared with allies.

Air Force testers noted problems with the EISS imaging system two years ago during the Block 30's operational testing period, but the service still accepted it into the fleet. Only months later, amid funding cuts, the Air Force opted to remove Block 30 purchases from their budget (AW&ST Feb. 26, 2012, p. 34). This year, the service has also walked away from the Block 40.

Vice says Northrop will integrate the Syers-2B version on the Global Hawk for 6% of the Air Force's estimated cost of an $855 million bill to upgrade the Raytheon sensor to specifications. An Air Force report cites the cost of integrating Syers-2B and OBC onto Global Hawk as $487 million.

The Air Force report, however, calls for pulling these cameras from U-2s for integration, which is unlikely to sit well with commanders who use them daily. And, the belly-mounted SAR has to be removed from Global Hawk to accommodate the U-2 sensors.

The Air Force said the proposal is “too little, too late” as the service has struggled to contain Global Hawk cost for years, owing to shifts in requirements, deployment plans and developmental challenges.

Navy officials assert that they are proceeding well with the Triton effort, which intends to follow a methodical process. In a fervor to support the war efforts, USAF developed a complex upgrade plan that ultimately delivered a capability that has not been accepted by combatant commanders.

“One of the advantages we've had is being able to follow the Air Force in the Global Hawk program and take on many lessons learned from the challenges they faced,” Hoke says.

*USAF is requesting early Global Hawk termination from Congress. Total inventory TBD.
Global Hawk Family
MQ-4C Triton
Total program cost: $13 billion
Planned inventory: 70
Unit cost (including development): $189 million
Powerplant: Rolls-Royce AE3007H
Wingspan: 130.9 ft.
Length: 47.6 ft.
Height: 15.4 ft.
GTOW: 32,250 lb.
Max. Internal Payload: 3,200 lb.
Max. External Payload: 2,400 lb.
Average Cruising Altitude: 56,500 ft.
Average Cruising Velocity: 331 kt.
Endurance: 24 hr.
RQ-4B Global Hawk(Blocks 30 and 40)
Total program cost: $10 billion
Planned inventory: 45*
Unit cost (including development): $222.7 million
Powerplant: Rolls-Royce AE3007H
Wingspan: 130.9 ft.
Length: 47.6 ft.
Height: 15.4 ft.
GTOW: 32,250 lb.
Max. Internal Payload: 3,000 lb.
Max. External Payload: not used by USAF
Average Cruising Altitude: 55,000 ft.
Average Cruising Velocity: 310 kt
Endurance: 30 hr.
Sources: Northrop Grumman, Government Accountability Office and USAF