Triton drones: Defence is on autopilot, with Ministers along for the ride
a smug man with a his car on autopilot

Defence decisions can't be left to the autopilot

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The Department of Defence has convinced Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles and the PM-chaired National Security Committee of Cabinet to proceed with buying a fourth Triton long range UAV from America’s Northrop Grumman corporation, likely adding some $350 million to $1 billion spent so far out of a total project budget of $2.777 billion.

This is an extraordinary decision in at least five ways, but it’s most disturbing because it shows that Defence is proceeding as if nothing has changed since the Defence Strategic Review.

Triton is the poster child of how not to do autonomous, uncrewed systems.  Instead, it perpetuates the Australian military’s pursuit of the exquisite, the few and the complex. It’s too expensive to lose, too vulnerable to send anywhere dangerous (including the places it would be needed in war) and, if one is lost, it takes a long time to build a replacement—but that won’t be possible in the case of Triton since the US is about to end production. And it’s taken almost a quarter of a century for Australia to still not quite have any of these aircraft in operation. 

If Australia’s military is to have ‘impactful projection’ and be more survivable and lethal to deter conflict, this vulnerable, expensive, unarmed platform is not the way. And in the 25 years since Triton’s development began, there has been a proliferation of other ways to gather the data it does—small, low earth orbit satellites and smaller, cheaper uncrewed systems being two alternatives with price tags considerably below the Triton program’s.

With no new money coming into the Defence organisation for at least the next four years under the Albanese government, you would think Defence would be ruthlessly prioritising what it is spending its cash on.  Instead, it looks very much like it’s on autopilot with this project being delivered by a big US prime—which joins a list of other recent decisions to buy from US defence conglomerates’ catalogues.

Meanwhile, more practical spends on smaller projects that could be delivered by much faster moving and smaller Australian companies can’t proceed until Defence gets the government to sign off on its revised, post-DSR acquisition plans in the lead up to the May 2024 budget. Being as polite as possible, that’s counterintuitive.

The US Navy was the customer for this developmental UAV from the big US prime Northrop Grumman, but the USN’s original plan to have 77 Tritons has now been radically cut to just 22.

It’s likely that a key part of the US Navy’s reasoning is the vulnerability of this unarmed large UAV, given that it will be quite exposed when it is gathering intelligence and surveillance data during a conflict (the design began in far more peaceful, benign times). That should matter as much to our own military but appears not to.

As Defence industry minister Pat Conroy’s announcement shows, Australia’s commitment is proceeding unchanged despite this radical cut by the home operator of the system.  Most of the program budget of $2.777 billion looks like it’s spent even if Defence manages to refrain from buying 3 more, as was its original vision.

Triton is not just a bad capability choice, it is also appalling value for money at a time when other government departments are having to make cuts that matter. Ed Husic’sDepartment of Industry, Science and Resources cut Australia’s $1.2 billion project to build and operate four satellites that were to be launched between 2028 and 2033 to do Earth observation tasks—because, he said, “If I don’t cut a billion there, I’ve got to find it somewhere else in the portfolio”.

These satellites would have been very useful to Defence and other national security agencies in themselves, and also had a hugely positive effect of increasing Australian companies’ ability to produce space systems for Defence and other purposes.  The problem for Minister Husic – and the now much reduced domestic space industry – is that there seems to be little cross-portfolio spending prioritisation, even in areas like data collection from high altitude and space where the dual-use features of systems are obvious.

A priority comparison between these earth observation satellites and Triton would only have had one answer – the satellite program would be proceeding.  And that is without considering whether the satellites could have carried specific maritime surveillance sensors along with their existing observation capacities.

Inside the Defence budget, the $350 million spent to buy a fourth Triton is $350 million that won’t now be available to small and medium Australian companies making ‘the small, the cheap and the many’ – uncrewed aerial systems, drones like the disposable cardboard UAVs made by Sypaq that are proving effective in Ukraine, and small, cheap, effective uncrewed undersea systems like Bluebottle and Speartooth.  The companies developing these are doing so on budgets that are a fraction of the costs of one Triton UAV – and they are struggling to get anything more than limited grant funding out of the Australian defence organisation.

The US Pentagon is matching its radical cuts to Triton with an equally radical plan to expand its acquisition of ‘the small, the cheap and the many’ – through a program called Replicator, which is all about learning the lessons on drones from Ukraine – low cost replaceable systems available in very large numbers is the future.  That’s the opposite path to the quarter century journey on Triton.

The last mystifying element of Triton is why a fourth aircraft was needed.  Answering a Question on Notice from an Estimates hearing in Parliament, Defence told former Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds that three aircraft would allow it to conduct simultaneous coverage of the Southwest Pacific and the South China Sea.  If that was true, then three seems the right number to stop at, with $350 million able to be allocated to other priority needs. So, either officials weren’t being up front then, or something strange is going on. Defence had been wanting six or seven, then told parliament three would do the job, but now has convinced the government it needs four. One wonders if the drip feed of approvals will ultimately result in six after all….

So, the DSR’s profound changes for Defence that the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of seem either to have not yet started or not be happening at all. As the world changes, Defence grinds on as it did before and it seems that its current ministers aren’t keen to notice the gap.

This article was first published by Defence Connect