MELBOURNE, Australia — Faced with a possible two-year production pause in the wake of the Trump administratoin’s fiscal 2021 budget request, Northrop Grumman is offering to accelerate MQ-4C Triton drone production for Australia at what it says is the lowest price it has ever offered for an unmanned platform.
Under the budget request, funding for U.S. Navy MQ-4C acquisition will be suspended until at least FY23, and aircraft that was to be built in low-rate initial production Lots 6 and 7 will now be deferred.
However, the proposal leaves the door open for Triton production to recommence in 2023 while securing funds to complete development of the IFC 4 variant of the drone. This latter model is required by the U.S. Navy to replace its aging fleet of Lockheed Martin-made EP-3E Aries II aircraft used for signals reconnaissance.
Speaking in Canberra on March 4, Northrop’s chief executive in Australia, Chris Deeble, said the company’s proposal is to move forward production of five aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force into the current, and funded, low-rate initial production 5 batch during the two years the U.S. Navy might not buy the aircraft.
“PB21 has created an incredible opportunity for Australia. We’ve been working with the U.S. Navy to provide an option to buy the rest of their aircraft as part of the LRIP 5 contract,” Deeble said. “That provides a significant unit-cost saving to Australia, so now’s the time to buy more than ever.”
Australia has a requirement for six Tritons, built to the IFC 4 standard, under Project Air 7000 Phase 1B. However, it currently has only one aircraft on order, which would be built as part of LRIP 5 and requires a more finalized contract by May 15 if the plan is to go ahead.
Deeble said Australia will need to make a decision on the additional five aircraft by the end of June.
Northrop Grumman’s proposal is to add the five Australian aircraft to the existing three aircraft in LRIP 5 (two U.S. Navy and one RAAF aircraft), bringing the total to eight.
Deeble said the offer preserves Australia’s planned funding profile for Triton acquisition and that the delivery schedule will remain the same. Should Australia finalize an agreement to meet its six-Triton requirement, it expects to receive them between 2023 and 2025, with declaration of final operational capability in the 2025-2026 time frame.
"The two key points are, this will probably the best price you will be able to achieve for the Triton capability, and we’re remaining within the [Australian] defense profile,” Deeble added. “We also look to provide Australian industry opportunities as a consequence. And committing to an additional five aircraft in LRIP 5 will provide about AU$56 million [(U.S. $37 million)] of opportunity in that regard.”