How the Navy and Northrop Avoided a “Strategic Pause” in the MQ-4C Production Line

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An MQ-4C Triton taxis at Andersen Air Force Base. (US Air Force/Michael S. Murphy)

SEA AIR SPACE 2022: The US Navy and Northrop Grumman have avoided an originally planned “strategic pause” in the MQ-4C Triton production line through a combination of Congressional additions and foreign military sales.

Plans to halt production of Triton, an unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft, were announced in the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 and included shutdowns for 2021 and 2022. At the time, the service said that the breaks were necessary to give the program office more time to develop the capabilities associated with certain aircraft configurations.

But none of the planned production shutdowns happened, thanks to a combination of factors, according to Northrop executive Doug Shaffer. He told reporters on Monday that the FY21 break never happened because Australia ended up buying three Tritons in FY21 and Congress added a plane to the budget of the Navy that year. The FY22 pause, he said, was averted when Congress again added two planes beyond the service’s budget request for FY22.

Although the Navy sought a pause in production while it developed new capabilities, the additional aircraft purchased by Australia and added by Congress effectively kept the production line moving, regardless of demand from the Navy. Marine. New capabilities continued to be developed on the sidelines and will eventually be incorporated into the Triton program.

Suspending an active production line always carries risks for the Navy and the prime contractor. These risks include the layoff and rehiring of workers, compromise agreements on parts or materials ordered in bulk to save money, or the bankruptcy of supply chain subcontractors due to a lack of work.

Shaffer noted that by avoiding production breaks, the program avoids undue costs. “The unit cost is not exploding. We are not losing suppliers. The industrial base remains intact,” he said.

The President’s new FY23 budget request released last week is for three MQ-4C Newts. Shaffer added that Northrop Grumman was discussing options with Australia for the country to continue purchasing as well.

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Separately, the Navy is making a second attempt in its new budget request to retire the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance – Demonstrator, an aircraft the service has been using for several years now and which directly influenced capability developments to the MQ-4C Triton. . The service sought to retire the plane last year, but was unable to do so.

The Navy used BAMS-D, a variant of the Air Force’s Global Hawk, in partnership with Northrop Grumman to figure out how it would operate an unmanned aircraft that performs extended flights.

“The Air Force had been doing this for a number of years, but not in a maritime environment, not looking at maritime targets, not full maritime domain awareness,” said Rear Admiral Brian Corey, director program for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. , told the same group of reporters. “What this did allowed us to prepare for Triton. It allowed us to understand how we could use Triton.

Asked about the reason for the retirement, Corey said his office was not directly responsible for making the decision, but that it was up to department management to choose which activities to prioritize and which ones could be cut.

In January 2020, the Navy deployed two MQ-4Cs to begin operating from Guam. Last December, Corey said, the service flew one of those planes back to the continental United States.

The reason for this was “maintenance proficiency” and to ensure the service’s operational squadron flying the MQ-4C was ready to achieve Initial Operational Capability, a key acquisition milestone, in August 2023, said Corey.

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