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US to ‘pause’ production of Australia’s Triton drones

Posted By on February 27, 2020 @ 15:17

The title of the latest issue of Australian Foreign Affairs [1] asks, ‘Can we trust America?’ The case of the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial system would suggest the answer is no.

The 2016 defence white paper [2] named the Triton as one of its capability priorities for the future Australian Defence Force:

To complement the surveillance capabilities of the [P-8A] Poseidon, the Government will acquire seven high altitude MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft from the early 2020s … The Triton is an unarmed, long-range, remotely piloted aircraft that will operate in our maritime environment, providing a persistent maritime patrol capability and undertaking other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

The supporting integrated investment program flagged a cost of $3–4 billion.

In June 2018, the government announced [3] that it would ‘invest $1.4 billion and acquire the first of six Tritons’ (it’s not clear what happened to the seventh). That top-level figure also included $364 million in infrastructure, as well as ‘the necessary ground control systems, support and training required to implement a project of this nature’.

But this wasn’t going to be a straightforward commercial or foreign military sales purchase. The government also announced that ‘as part of this investment Australia will also enter into a $200 million cooperative program with the United States Navy for the development, production and sustainment of the MQ-4C Triton’. It wasn’t very specific on what we would get for our $200 million, but stressed that ‘Australia’s alliance with the US is our most important defence relationship, underpinned by strong cooperation in defence industry and capability development’ and asserted that ‘[t]his cooperative program will strengthen our ability to develop advanced capability and conduct joint military operations’.

In March 2019, the government announced [4] it had approved acquisition of the second aircraft at a cost of ‘around $350 million [5]’.

So that makes it decidedly awkward that the US Department of Defense budget papers [6] for fiscal year 2021 announced a two-year ‘production pause in FY 2021 and FY 2022’ in the Triton program. The budget documents don’t state what is behind the pause. There are a range of potential factors, including finding funds to help build President Donald Trump’s border wall and to achieve the chimerical goal of a 355-ship fleet (noting that the budget reduces orders for new ships this year).

The pause is unfortunate for Australia for several reasons. Our first Triton should be delivered before the pause takes effect, but overall the goal of initial operational capability in 2023–24 and final operational capability by 2025 look like taking a two-year hit. That’s the best-case future.

It could be worse. The US is much more willing to cancel programs than Australia is. And the wolves pick off the stragglers. Germany [7] left the program earlier this year. The Triton has already suffered [8] a 61% increase in development cost and a 70% increase in acquisition schedule, so with a two-year production pause on top of that plus the cost of restarting production, it’s looking more and more like an easy target for budget predators. There are no guarantees US Navy production will start up again, particularly if shipbuilding continues to need more cash (that last bit might sound familiar to Australian readers). That would leave us with one aircraft, a lot of infrastructure to support aircraft we won’t ever have, and a $200 million hangover.

It could be worse again. There’s some talk of Australia jumping in and filling the production gap by acquiring its remaining aircraft earlier. But this ‘opportunity’ may be a trap. When the production pause occurs, the US Navy will have received 14 of the 65 originally planned aircraft. If the US doesn’t continue the acquisition program, Australia may be on the hook for one-third of the future spiral development costs of a total fleet of around 20 aircraft.

Even worse, the US Navy may well decide it’s not worth operating its rump fleet and cancel everything, leaving Australia in the impossible position of holding six or seven orphan aircraft and the entire future cost of supporting the capability after we’ve gone all in for $3–4 billion. The sunk cost fallacy suggests it could be better to cut our losses and get out now, even if we have spent hundreds of millions already.

What do the worst-case scenarios mean for capability? The loss of the Triton will certainly be felt in border protection, but its impact could be even greater in high-end warfighting. It’s interesting to juxtapose this news with the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency’s announcement [9] three days before the budget papers were released. That made public that the sale of up to 200 AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles to Australia for US$990 million had been approved. Australia’s acquisition of LRASMs was good news, a welcome enhancement to the ADF’s maritime strike capability that is seriously outgunned by regional capabilities. But the ADF can’t take full advantage of the weapon’s 500+ kilometre range [10] without sophisticated long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

That said, the Triton is a very expensive aircraft, more even than the F-35. It may be an unmanned system, but it is more like a traditional manned platform in that its exquisite capability makes it exquisitely expensive, resulting in very small numbers in our inventory. The Iranians managed to shoot down [11] its sibling, the Global Hawk, so the Chinese may well be able to handle a Triton. A fleet of six doesn’t allow for losses, but do we want to stock up on more at a cost of hundreds of millions each?

Are the Triton’s woes actually a blessing in disguise for Australia then? Maybe, but currently there’s no direct alternative to the Triton on the market (and if there were, it would likely cost about the same). Filling its role across the spectrum of operations with a combination of other assets such as P-8A manned maritime patrol aircraft and satellites will not be straightforward or cheap and it won’t happen soon. Swarms of small drones don’t (yet) have the range and endurance needed, and much of the cost of the Triton is in getting autonomous systems to operate reliably over very long ranges anyway.

It doesn’t appear that our $200 million contribution to the Triton cooperative program gave us much say in its future. While a constant flow of senior US visitors to Canberra over the past couple of years has proclaimed that the US’s competitive advantage lies in its allies and Australia is its closest ally, we are still subject to the vagaries of the US system.

Cooperative programs are not necessarily all bad if they mean you have a greater ability to get exactly what you need, but in one sense they mean you are buying yourself a bigger share of the risk. If the US offers us an option to fill the ISR gap, we might want to exercise a little caution and be very sure the program is at the heart of US priorities as well as our own.



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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/us-to-pause-production-of-australias-triton-drones/

URLs in this post:

[1] Australian Foreign Affairs: https://www.australianforeignaffairs.com/

[2] 2016 defence white paper: https://www.defence.gov.au/WhitePaper/Docs/2016-Defence-White-Paper.pdf

[3] announced: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-releases/prime-minister-minister-defence-minister-defence-industry-joint

[4] announced: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/cpyne/media-releases/australia-commits-next-triton-remotely-piloted-aircraft

[5] $350 million: https://www.defence.gov.au/AnnualReports/18-19/DAR_2018-19_Complete.pdf

[6] budget papers: https://www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/21pres/APN_BA1-4_BOOK.pdf

[7] Germany: https://www.defensenews.com/breaking-news/2020/01/28/germany-walks-away-from-25-billion-purchase-of-us-navys-triton-spy-drones/

[8] already suffered: https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/698933.pdf

[9] announcement: https://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/australia-long-range-anti-ship-missiles-lrasms

[10] 500+ kilometre range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AGM-158C_LRASM

[11] shoot down: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Iranian_shoot-down_of_American_drone

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