While the world is tied up in the mystery of what happened to Malaysian Air Flight 370, testers at Edwards AFB in south central California and at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland are hard at work developing the ultimate tool for solving such a mystery, the Northrop Grumman built MQ-4C Triton.

Michael Ballaban has a great writeup describing the US Navy platforms that are currently working the MH370 search zone, they include a Destroyer and its embarked MH-60R anti-surface and submarine (ASuW/ASW) helicopters (all of which have since been pulled from the search effort), and the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. These are all capable weapon systems, but are less than ideally suited for finding a metaphorical tiny bird floating in a massive lake. For what the US Navy deems broad area maritime surveillance (BAMS) there is no better creation ever fielded by mankind than the emerging MQ-4C Triton.

Based on an enlarged version the semi-autonomous Northrop Grumman's "Global Hawk" Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) design, this high altitude long endurance (HALE) drone has the ability to fly for well over 24 hours at speeds up to 330kts, and while doing so it can survey a whopping 2,700,000 square miles of sea or coastline in a single sortie. In fact, it can scan 2,000 square miles in a single sweep of its radar and it can do that in virtually any direction on a 2 dimensional plane. The aircraft's ability to survey such high volumes of the planet's surface at one time is a product of its operating altitude, close to 55,000ft, and its incredibly powerful and versatile rotating radar array.


The Triton's AN/ZPY-3 MFAS radar is a 360-degree field-of-regard active electronically scanned array radar that operates in the X-band. It was purpose built for maritime surveillance, but it is also capable of shoreline and overland snooping. This radar's unique ability to see in every direction around the aircraft, at great lengths, while simultaneously being able to accurately focus on a single spot of sea or coastline gives the MQ-4C the capability to not only detect surface targets at massive ranges but to investigate them further as well.

Utilizing the MFAS radar in inverse synthetic aperture mode (where the radar takes a map like picture), the Triton can shoot a very high-power and focused beam of radar energy at a small target hundreds of miles away, and actually "see" what that target is. The system can also quickly scan large areas of the sea and instantly take high definition radar pictures only of the contacts (ships) it picks up during such a scan. Triton can then efficiently classify and/or identify these targets using advanced image and radar return recognition software and by reading the ships' transponders using its onboard automatic identification system (AIS). This way the information that an analyst back at the Triton's ground control station, which can be all the way around the world, can instantly see not just the location of all the targets that Triton detected, but also synthetic aperture radar pictures of those targets. Even better, because Triton can classify the targets it detects autonomously, an operator can select filters so that Triton only transmits the target images that the operator instructs the system to send, thus saving bandwidth, time and manpower.


Triton's ability to "distill" much of the data it receives, leaving operators to look at only the most relevant information it collects, fits well into the Global Hawk's "semi-autonomous" command and control concept. This concept is one where "flying" the drone is done by pointing and clicking locations on a map and setting the aircraft speed, altitude and objective via a desktop-like interface. The whole idea is to automate as many functions as possible, thus allowing for better efficiencies in manpower while also shrinking the time it takes to leverage meaningful intelligence.

When a synthetic aperture radar picture, which is impervious to weather conditions, is simply not enough information, the massive Triton, that packs a wingspan the size of a Boeing 757, can do what its Global Hawk cousins cannot, descend down to low level to investigate a target up close and personal.

The Triton was designed with a much more robust lower fuselage that is better able to withstand hail, bird and lightning strikes when compared to the Air Force's RQ-4B, and it also includes anti-icing systems on its wings. These features allow it to drop down to lower altitudes, under inclement weather, to get an closer look a target with its Raytheon built MTS-B multi-spectral electro optical/infrared sensor. This highly capable senor ball has been used on the MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned aircraft for some time, and in its latest form it offers a wide range of infrared sensitivity as well as standard electro-optical visuals. Additionally, the MTS-B can be equipped to provide laser designation, pointer, and range finding abilities. Tied to the Triton's powerful mission computers, this sensor is also capable of automatic tracking and can be slaved to search autonomously for a contact detected by the Triton's powerful MFAS radar.

The Triton's advanced optical suite will allow it to not only transmit pictures of a target in question at standoff and close ranges, but it will also be able to designate targets and provide live streaming overwatch for special operations missions. This ability to investigate a target down to the last mile, literally from detecting a suspicious radar track from hundreds of miles away to reading the name painted on the fantail of a ship, is truly stunning and bridges the conceptual "tactical" gap that has traditionally existed with such high-flying, wide-scanning, strategic surveillance assets.

The Triton is also one hell of a passive listener. The aircraft will be equipped with a modular electronic service measures (ESM) suite that was borrowed from the EP-3 Aeries spy plane. This system can "sniff out" radar signals, even faint ones, and classify them. Additionally, such a system should also be capable of triangulating and geo-locating these signals. This data can be used for strategic purposes by planners who are building an "electronic order of battle" profile of an enemy, or it can be used to keep the Triton, and even other aircraft it broadcasts too (more on that in a moment), outside the range of enemy radars and surface to air missile capabilities. This system can also be used to locate ships at sea, as most of them use at least one type of radar to navigate, whereas larger military vessels usually have many types of powerful radar systems that are easily detectible at great ranges. In this sense, Triton's ESM suit may be just as useful as detecting surface vessels as its advanced radar set.

Although such a system is focused on detecting radar emissions, as the Triton matures it should be able to monitor for other signals, and eventually it will also provide communications surveillance and be able to listen in on telecommunications of various types. What this all means is that the Triton will be as good of a passive detection platform as she is an active one, and should be able to hunt down certain radar or communications emissions emanating from an electromagnetically quiet ocean with fantastic accuracy.

Finally, the MQ-4C possesses the ability to act as a network relay and data fusion center. In other words, it can work as a high-flying mainframe computer server and antenna farm, transmitting and receiving messages from around the theater between weapon systems and/or commanders that are not within line of sight of one another. The MQ-4C can also take what ships, planes, and land based sensors are seeing and broadcasting via various data link systems deployed around the battle-space and fuse that information together into a common "picture." It can then rebroadcast that enhanced picture back to those very same platforms, and/or to commanders around the globe. This capability provides a massively enhanced "active net" over the maritime battlefield and drastically increases interoperability, situational awareness, targeting efficiency and sensor picture clarity of the total force while also providing a resilient alternative to vulnerable satellite communications systems.

So when you need to search for something in the water but have next to no idea where in the better half of a hemisphere it is, your best shot of finding it will be to unleash the Tritons. They can scan more surface area in one sortie than any other platform in the world, while also being able to autonomously investigate any contact of interest using radar, optical, infrared and its advanced signals intelligence listening capability, and if need be it can drop down low and stream live video back to its command and control module. Additionally, the Triton can help coordinate a search with other platforms, sharing target data and relaying messages far over the horizon. Interoperability with the newP-8 Poseidon, which is making its high-profile international debut with the search for MH370, was part of the Triton's original mission goals, and together they are one surface and sub-surface surveying dream-team.

Once the MQ-4C is operational, which should be within a few years, we will look back on the archaic search for MH370 as the last "soda straw," manpower intensive, international scouring of the seas of its kind. In the future, when such a sad occurrence comes to pass, and the orders are given to the US Navy to search for the proverbial needle in a haystack, albeit a watery one, the question will be "where are the Tritons?"

Photos via US Navy & Northrop Grumman