The U.S. Navy recently ordered two more MQ-4C “Triton” maritime surveillance UAVs for $86 million each. In late 2017 the navy received its first production model MQ-4C. There are now six production models in service and two development models. There used to be five development models but three have been lost, the first one in 2012 (in the United States). Two were lost in 2019. One was heavily damaged during a takeoff accident late in 2019 while another was shot down by the Iranians in mid-2019. The development models were air force RQ-4B aircraft modified for naval service. As development ended the development aircraft were put to work and the last two losses were operating in the Middle East. One of the production models had a landing accident in late 2018 and it is unclear when that one will return to service as it landed on its belly because the UAV lost power and the landing gear did not fully deploy.
The first production MQ-4Cs joined squadrons already created to use them. The first (of five) MQ-4C squadrons, VUP (Unmanned Patrol Squadron) 19 became operational in late 2016 even though the squadron only had access to the three MQ-4C prototypes and three RQ-4s configured as Tritons. VUP 19 was moved to Guam in the Pacific and received its first two MQ-4Cs in early 2020 and began operations. Each VUP squadron has about 130 personnel, including UAV operators and maintenance personnel. The MQ-4C carries a lot of electronics, including a new “sense and avoid” system so that the UAV can operate in commercial airspace and alongside other military aircraft, including the P-8A manned reconnaissance aircraft. The “sense and avoid” system is still not fully operational. The 360-degree ocean surveillance radar is operational as is the air search radar. The ocean surveillance radar operates in all weather and can identify most ships it detects on the surface.
A second squadron is being formed on the west coast (California) to cover the eastern Pacific. Three more VUPs will be based in Kadena, Japan, Sigonella, Italy and the Atlantic. All five VUP squadrons are supposed to be operational by 2022. At that point, each VUP will receive more MQ-4Cs until they each have eight or more, are able to maintain at least four of them operational at all times and thus provide 24/7 surveillance where needed in their region. Each VUP will eventually have at least 12 MQ-4Cs so that some can also be sent overseas as needed. Before that happens some MQ-4Cs will be flown to the new VUPs as needed for training or operations.
Australia has seven MQ-4Cs on order to complement its P-8As and other manned maritime surveillance aircraft. India and Britain are watching all this unfold before while they consider obtaining MQ-4Ca. There is no question that the MQ-4Cs can perform and the developmental models have spent enough time in the air to determine that the MQ-4Cs will probably suffer about four UAVs lost per 100,000 flight hours. That will improve over time but it has already improved quite a lot since the original RQ-4 Global Hawk entered service.
The navy now plans to buy at least 60 MQ-4Cs Tritons and 117 P-8A “Poseidon” manned jet aircraft to replace 250 prop-driven P-3Cs maritime surveillance aircraft. This replacement program is supposed to be completed before 2030. The new surveillance aircraft provide more information over a wider area and do it more quickly. So far 106 P-8As are in service with the U.S. Navy and foreign customers.
In 2009 one of the six navy RQ-4Bs used for MQ-4C development was put in service on an experimental basis. The first year of testing consisted of 60 flights and over 1,000 hours in the air. The flights were over land and sea areas, even though the UAV sensors are designed mainly to perform maritime reconnaissance. In 2012 a navy RQ-4B began operating with a carrier task force at sea. Circling above the task force at 22,500 meters (70,000 feet), the UAV monitored sea traffic off the Iranian coast and the Straits of Hormuz. Anything suspicious was checked out by carrier aircraft, land-based aircraft, or nearby warships. The RQ-4B could fly a 24 hour sortie every three days. The brief tests with the fleet were a success and the first pre-production MQ-4C was delivered in late 2012.
The Navy initially planned to buy MQ-4Cs for over $60 million each. The MQ-4C has a wingspan of 42.2 meters (131 feet) and is 15.5 meters (48 feet) long. Range is over 22,000 kilometers and cruising speed is 650 kilometers an hour. The MQ-4C is based on the RQ-4B Global Hawk which entered service in 2006. At 13 tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs nearly twice as much. Global Hawk is equipped with powerful and expensive sensors, which more than double the cost of the aircraft. These "spy satellite quality" sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over 20,000 meters (62,000 feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours.
The MQ-4C is seen as the ultimate replacement for all manned maritime patrol aircraft, at least once it is equipped with more anti-submarine sensors and weapons. The P-8A will probably be the last manned naval search aircraft. Some countries are using satellite communications to put the sensor operators who staff manned patrol aircraft on the ground. Some nations propose sending aircraft like the P-3 or P-8 aloft with just their flight crews, not all the system operators and having all the other gear operated from the ground. This will enable the aircraft to stay in the air longer and carry more equipment.