Iran shoots down US Navy drone — full details on Navy RQ-4A

Photo: A US Navy MQ-4C Triton. Northrop Grumman/Alex Evers


US Central Command confirmed that a US Navy RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) aircraft was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile while operating over the Strait of Hormuz on June 19. The Iranian Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) earlier said it had downed a US drone over Iranian airspace.

It came at a time of rising tensions in the region, with the Pentagon saying on Monday that it was deploying an extra 1,000 troops to the region.

The US Navy selected the Block 20 version of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk as the winner of the BAMS Unmanned Aircraft System (BAMS UAS) project in April 2008 and it was assigned the designation MQ-4C and received the name Triton in September 2010. The UAS first flew at Palmdale, California, in May 2013 and the initial pair of System Development and Demonstration (SDD) aircraft was delivered to NAS Patuxent River for testing in 2014.

The MQ-4C and the P-8A are the two key elements in the recapitalization of the airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability of the Navy’s maritime patrol and reconnaissance force (MPRF).

Prior to the selection of the Global Hawk for BAMS, Northrop Grumman had delivered two modified RQ-4As to the Navy in 2005. The air vehicles supported the Navy’s Global Hawk Maritime Demonstration (GHMD). Although based on the USAF’s early Block 10 RQ-4As, the naval variants featured an inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) that had a maritime search mode along with other minor changes. The GHMD was subsequently renamed the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) Program in 2009.

The RQ-4As have been continuously deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates in support of US Central Command since February 2009 and are tasked to conduct maritime surveillance missions and support the development of concepts and tactics that will support the BAMS. The Navy also acquired three Block 10 RQ-4As from the USAF in 2011, however one was written off in a crash that occurred in June 2012. The downed example is one of these.

Production plans for the Triton initially included six developmental aircraft comprising three for developmental test (DT) and three System Demonstration Test Articles (SDTA). The numbers were later reduced to include two SDD and two SDTA airframes.

A Milestone C decision approved low rate initial production in September 2016 and an order for the first batch of three Lot 1 MQ-4Cs followed. The service’s program of record in includes 65 Tritons that will be delivered by 2032 and through Fiscal 2019, 12 had been authorized.

The Triton was initially deployed with a multi-sensor mission payload that includes electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) full motion video sensor, maritime surveillance radar for detecting, classifying, and tracking surface targets, automatic identification system (AIS) that collects broadcasts from cooperative maritime vessels and electronic-support measures system that can detect, identify, and geolocate threat radars. The configuration is known as integrated functional capability-3 (IFC3).

Beginning in 2020, IFC4 series aircraft will receive a signals intelligence (SIGINT) Multi-INT capability that will allow the MQ-4C to replace the manned EP-3E ARIES II ISR aircraft. Testing of the IFC4 configuration will begin in 2019. The Fiscal 2020 budget includes funds to retrofit Lot 1 and Lot 2 Tritons with the Multi-INT capability. Two MQ-4Cs requested in Fiscal 2020 will be delivered in the IFC4 configuration.

The first operational MQ-4C was delivered to VUP-19, Detachment Point Mugu at Naval Base Ventura County Point Mugu, California, on November 9, 2017. A second squadron will be established when VUP-11 stands up at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington in 2019. The MQ-4C is scheduled to achieve IOC in FY 2021 but the Navy expects to achieve and Early Operational Capability (EOC) with the IFC3 configuration in Fiscal 2020. The Navy plans to station Tritons at Naval Station Mayport, Florida and NAS Sigonella, Italy, as well as Andersen AFB, Guam.

A single Triton orbit will provide a continuous surveillance capability at a maximum mission radius of 2,000nm (3,704km) for a minimum of 24 hours. When full operational capability is achieved, the system will provide up to five simultaneous orbits worldwide.

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