Navy conducts first test flight of Northrop’s Triton drone
Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman Corp., plagued by setbacks with its pricey high-flying spy drones, has come up with a new version for the Navy that could keep the company’s unmanned aircraft assembly line in Palmdale humming.
An initial test flight — a relatively easy 80 minutes around the company’s Palmdale plant — went off without a hitch. And that could have a major effect on the program’s future in the Southland.
The drone, called MQ-4C Triton, is a heavily modified version of Northrop’s beleaguered RQ-4 Global Hawk, which has been dismissed as too expensive by the Pentagon and Germany’s defense ministry.
Both agencies have proposed canceling orders for the drones, which could cost Northrop more than $1 billion and put Southland aerospace jobs at risk.
But the Triton’s successful flight could mark a new beginning for spy drone technology. The company has an $11-billion contract with the Navy to build 68 Tritons.
“When operational, the MQ-4C will complement our manned [planes] because it can fly for long periods, transmit its information in real time to units in the air and on ground, as well as use less resources than previous surveillance aircraft,” said Rear Adm. Sean Buck, Navy patrol and reconnaissance group commander.
“Triton will bring an unprecedented … capability to the war fighter,” Buck said.
Drone aircraft have played a central role in the U.S. government’s counterterrorism strategy for more than a decade, a role that President Obama outlined in a speech Thursday.
Under pressure from Congress and international allies, Obama said he will place new restrictions on the targeting of terrorists with missiles fired from drones. But unarmed spy drones, such as the Triton and Global Hawk, were not part of the change in policy.
Northrop has more than 2,500 employees working on the Global Hawk family of aircraft, which includes the Triton. The company has teams of engineers in Rancho Bernardo in San Diego County and technicians at its Palmdale facility, where the drones are assembled in a massive hangar that once housed construction of the B-2 stealth bomber.
The Triton is a near-mirror image of the Global Hawk. But the drone is specifically built to fly over oceans and has a suite of sensors that can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. It has a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 737, the world’s most common commercial airliner, and can fly 11,500 miles without refueling.
The technology gives the Navy a high-flying, long-endurance spy drone that it has never had.
Mike Mackey, Northrop’s deputy program director, said Triton is the most advanced drone “ever designed for use across vast ocean areas and coastal regions.”
The Air Force thought the same thing about the Global Hawk, in service since 2001. The drones — which, at 60,000 feet, can fly twice as high as a commercial airliner — were set to replace the military’s fleet of U-2 spy planes in service since the 1950s.
But that plan was put on hold when Pentagon officials said the Global Hawks, costing more than $200 million apiece, were too expensive to operate. The Air Force planned to buy 31 of the drones, but decided to stop after purchasing 18.
“The U-2 has better operational capability,” Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said last month when the 2014 budget proposal was released. “And the money it would take to bring the Global Hawk … up to that level of operational capability is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Last week, the German state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Defense said the country would not procure four more of the Global Hawk drones for fiscal reasons. Northrop said Germany has yet to formally cancel the contract.
The Triton, which has been in development since 2008, is Northrop’s most advanced variant of the Global Hawk yet. It was designed to give military commanders the ability to gather high-resolution images, use radar to detect targets and provide airborne communications to military units across vast distances.
There is foreign interest in the aircraft as well. Australia has formally requested information on it.
For now, the Triton will continue flight tests in Palmdale before it is taken to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland later this year.