By Robbin Laird
During my recent visit to Australia in March-April 2023, the main focus of attention was on the re-set of Australian defence to deal with the evolving strategic challenges in the Pacific. An important area for expanding the reach and viability of the ADF in its regional focus on the direct defense of Australia is upon building out an effective, redundant, and survivable distributed ISR set of networks to serve the ADF and the nation in their efforts.
At the Williams Foundation Seminar held on 30 March 2023, Jake Campbell, a former RAAF officer involved in such efforts and now working at Northrop Grumman Australia on the Triton, sketched the way ahead in his presentation on layered ISR capabilities within Australia’s evolving deterrence strategy.
I continued this discussion with Wing Commander Keirin Joyce who has dealt with uncrewed systems within the combat force both as an Army and now as an Air Force officer. Currently, he is Program Chief Engineer RPAS (MQ-4C Triton) at Royal Australian Air Force.
We started by discussing Triton and its progress in terms of coming into the ADF. And we then moved to the broader discussion of the evolving ISR/C2 ecosystem of which Triton is a part of an evolving capability for the ADF.
The point can be put bluntly: one can discuss Triton as a platform, but that really would miss the major point – it is a contributor to an evolving mesh of elements making up an ISR web which is being crafted to provide the force with a common operating picture to enable continuity of operations in even high intensity operations.
As Joyce noted in our last interview, Triton as a platform can be understood this way: “In effect, Triton is a very low Earth orbiting satellite, and it helps monitor a wide area of interest from the sensors because it operates at such a high altitude. We can move this sensor rich aircraft to a specific area of interest. And that is the huge advantage of Triton…”
In our meeting in April, Joyce provided an update on the program for the Australian Triton. “Our first airplane is almost finished on the production line. It will then enter the U.S. Navy certification and calibration process and will come to Australia in about a year from now. There are two other airplanes in production. We are a cooperative partner in the program, so we are already looking at the upgrade path, even before the delivery of our first plane. Upgradeability is built into the airplane and as a cooperative partner we are participating in the upgradeability process on the ground floor.”
Much of our discussion focused on the eco-system which Triton is to be part of and the need to help build it. There is the evolving Australian space effort which is seen in the defence project JP9102. As Triton is highly complementary to what Australia is likely to do in space, how Triton and its data will interact with the payloads in space and the data they provide is part of the overall ISR/C2 defence effort.
Electronic warfare is being re-worked into counter-ISR efforts which Admiral Paparo in my interview with him in late April indicated was a key element of the evolving deterrence strategy as well. Joyce discussed the enterprise approach to ISR, and an Australian specific capability which is designed to contribute to the way ahead in the EW part of ISR, namely, MC-55A, the Peregrine manned aircraft.
As Dan Parsons and Tyler Rogoway described this program: “The airframe, configured with what have been described as “airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare” (AISREW) mission systems, bristles with antennas and has a recognizable belly “canoe” that contains additional sensors…. It is not known for certain what capabilities Australia’s MC-55A will have, but based on the name and equipment seen on the aircraft, it is likely to perform some combination of electronic warfare (EW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. We can also expect it to be capable of working as a networking relay and data-fusion platform that will tie other RAAF aircraft and ships together digitally.”
The key point made in my discussion with Joyce was that the Triton coming into the broader EW/ISR/C2 enterprise was being done with a clear focus on the various elements of a broader enterprise and effort, rather than simply a platform-specific one.
This led naturally to the question of the evolving ground system architecture for receiving information from the enterprise and to an ability to move data to a variety of access and processing points.
When I visited the Edinburgh base near Adelaide in 2017, it was already evident that a major ground station processing effort was being built there to handle P-8 and Triton. Joyce indicated that ground station modernization is a key part of the ecosystem which can exploit information provided from Triton as part of the wider enterprise. While the facilities at Edinburgh will be a key hub able to deliver relevant data to military and government users, the ADF is working on distributed data capabilities as well.
Finally, Wing Commander Joyce highlighted that with the U.S. Navy and the RAAF both operating the Triton, working cooperative operations can clearly be envisaged as Australia and the U.S. Navy will compliment areas of operations of significance to both countries to enhance the ISR/C2 capabilities of both.
And as the ADF builds out its longer-range strike capabilities, having the Triton as an asset to assist in the targeting process will be important as well.
In short, Triton comes at a key time in the evolution of ADF capabilities to enable longer-range effects from Australia out into the region. Joyce commented that what will be interesting to note ‘is this enough’? He thinks Australia will need even more assets, and uncrewed/automated/autonomous assets are probably the answer in the current challenging climate of attracting and retaining workforce.
The featured photo shows former RAAF AP-3C TACCO SQNLDR Neale Thompson. Thompson is the first international partner to operate the MQ-4C Triton. (US NAVY, 2019)
For Jake Campbell’s update on the Triton, see the following: