Germany goes for Triton

Germany is to buy the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system (UAS) from Northrop Grumman to succeed the abortive EuroHawk drone programme.

The RQ-4E EuroHawk UAS – like the Triton a derivative of the US Air Force’s Global Hawk – was cancelled in May 2013 after it was revealed that the system would not receive authorisation to operate in civil airspace.

The German defence ministry plans for MQ-4C deliveries to begin some time after 2025. The acquisition is still dependent upon parliamentary approval.

While the Triton will be procured as a Foreign Military Sale programme, it will receive a signals intelligence (SIGINT) suite from Airbus Defence and Space sensors, using equipment originally intended for the EuroHawk.

The number of Tritons to be fielded has not been announced, but original plans called for five EuroHawks at a cost of around €1.2bn.

The Triton is an evolution of the US Navy’s Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstration (BAMS-D) — formerly the Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration — a programme which acquired two Block 10 RQ-4A Global Hawk UAS from the US Air Force in 2004 and modified them with different sensors.

The EuroHawk saga

Germany pulled the plug on its previous EuroHawk programme after it became clear that European Aviation Safety Agency certification was only available for flights over unpopulated areas, and there was no guarantee that this would change in the near-term.

In order to clear the drone for use in civilian airspace, a further investment of €500-600m would have been required for a project that has already consumed €562 million. A further €500m was earmarked for the next four aircraft, to be procured in addition to the prototype that was delivered in 2011. An additional €40m was spent on modernising the Luftwaffe’s Jagel air base, where the reconnaissance UAVs were to have been based.

Other problems with the EuroHawk apparently related to the aircraft’s flight control system and the reported unwillingness of Northrop to share technical data related to certification.

The Triton will close a gap in airborne, long-range reconnaissance and SIGINT that was left by the decommissioning of the German Navy’s Breguet Atlantic.

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