Potent $1.5 billion upgrade to Australia’s maritime surveill…

Australia will purchase a fourth long-range Triton drone for maritime surveillance, despite the US Navy recently halting production of the expensive unmanned platform which critics warn is vulnerable to enemy attack.

The contentious American acquisition is part of a $1.5 billion boost to the RAAF being unveiled on Tuesday that includes upgrades to the existing P-8A Poseidon fleet, allowing the patrol aircraft to eventually fire anti-ship missiles up to 1,000km.

Under the Poseidon upgrade program, the Department of Defence expects the first of its 14 Boeing-made aircraft to receive enhancements to anti-submarine warfare, maritime strike and intelligence collection capabilities from 2026.

The entire fleet is expected to be completed by 2030.

Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy says the P-8A upgrades and purchase of an additional MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) will be “critical to our defence and particularly surveilling the northern approaches to Australia”.

“The purchase of an additional Triton will enhance operations from Australia’s northern bases, a priority under the Defence Strategic Review,” Mr Conroy said. 

“The upgrades to the fleet of Poseidon aircraft strengthens our ability to secure and protect Australia’s maritime interests.” 

Originating from the Global Hawk program, the MQ-4C Triton is manufactured by Northrop Grumman, boasting the ability to fly surveillance missions for more than 24 hours at altitudes exceeding 50,000 feet.

The Air Force’s P-8 Poseidon will gain the ability to fire missiles out to 1,000 kilometres.(Defence Department: Kate Czerny)

Under the previous Coalition government, an initial order was made for three of the high altitude long endurance (HALE) aircraft with plans to eventually buy up to seven, but none have yet been delivered to Australia. 

According to the Biden administration’s latest Department of Defense budget,  the Triton program will be terminated with production ceasing in 2024.

The halted production will leave the US Navy with a total of 22 aircraft, well short of its earlier target of 70.

Decision to persevere with Triton drone ‘strange’

Former Australian defence official Marcus Hellyer has described Labor’s decision to persevere with the Triton as “strange”.

He predicts the program will undoubtedly cost more in both acquisition and sustainment than originally forecast.

“Rather than getting in deeper and throwing good money after bad do we actually reconsider the whole thing and get out while we still can?” says Dr Hellyer, now with Strategic Analysis Australia.

“We’ve been pursing this capability for well over 20 years, we’ve been involved with the US on this program in various ways and we’ve been contributing financially to this program for a very long time.

Three man stand in a row, with former prime minister Tony Abbott in centre,

Former prime minister Tony Abbott announcing the Triton drone acquisition in 2014.(Supplied: ADF)

“The question was always would we continue and get the full six or seven or would we get a smaller number but if we got a smaller number would it actually be a viable capability?”

However, the Triton acquisition is the right decision for Australia when combined with other steps being taken by the government, says Mr Conroy. 

“I think this is good technology that gives us that persistent longer-range presence, that complements the best maritime surveillance aircraft in the world in the P-8 Poseidon and investments we’re making in space awareness,” he said. 

When Australia’s Triton aircraft eventually arrive, they are expected to be housed at RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory but operated remotely from RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia.

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