|General Atomics Mariner|
The Triton's flight is a very positive development towards filling current and projected gaps in long range Navy scouting. That said, despite the significant money and time the Navy has put into this program, I'm not sure it's the right choice. Here are the 4 primary reasons I like a maritime variant of the MQ-9 over the Triton:
1) Capability - The range delta between the Reaper and Guardian is fairly significant, but the MQ-9 is no slouch; compare about 4,000 NM/20 hrs endurance for the MQ-9 vs. 11,000 NM/31 hrs for Triton. At one point, General Atomics was developing an even longer-ranged maritime variant for the Navy's BAMS competition that had a 49 hour endurance.
Hokie pointed out that extreme range was imperative for operating in the Pacific. Yes that ocean is vast, but between Japan, Guam, Hawaii, Midway, Australia etc. we have enough friendly airfields to cover that water with the shorter-ranged platform (not that the mid-Pacific is very important in any sort of foreseeable fight). Moreover, pure range/endurance isn't necessarily the most desire trait for maritime ISR (see #4). In addition to an acceptable range for most maritime ISR scenarios, Reaper has about twice the payload, including:
2) Weaponization - Finding a target in the middle of the open ocean is great. But during combat, if we don't have enough ships, subs and long range missiles to engage the target the Triton finds (and we don't), then so what? The Reaper can find, fix, and finish a maritime target with one platform. The ability to drop a dozen Hellfires or 2 ship-killing 500 lb precision guide munitions would be of value in both low and high end war-at-sea scenarios.
3) Compatibility - The military has so many combat-proven General Atomics planes flying now that we have developed a huge supporting infrastructure. In addition to just platform acquisition costs, for any given beyond-line-of site unmanned aircraft system, there are costs associated with satellite bandwidth, ground control stations, launch and recovery elements, maintenance, and associated processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) systems for the intelligence the aircraft collects. Furthermore, the Reaper is a much more tactically friendly aircraft able to beam down full motion video and other sensor data to distributed tactical forces, performing much more like a current P-3 is able to tie a theater asset to tactical surface/ground units. The Tritons are designed to provide ISR collection to theater and higher level staffs, but don't do much for individual ships at sea and Marines operating far ashore.
4) Maybe the most important attribute for any program these days: Cost - the Navy can buy more than ten MQ-9s for the cost of one MQ-4C. Capability is one thing, but one airframe can only do one patrol at a time. We can cover more ISR orbits while achieving efficiencies in training, PED infrastructure, and maintenance with more vehicles. Interestingly, the Eurohawk project was recently canceled for cost reasons.
Bottom line: I hope Triton is a success, and I hope we don't bust the airborne ISR budget in the process of acquiring it. But if the program falters technically or runs over budget, the Navy should quickly shift fire to a marinized MQ-9B or C. As an added bonus, the Sea Avenger is designed to be operated from the land or carriers (it's one of the contenders in the Navy's UCLASS competition). The Navy is essentially broke and it's time to make tough, smart choices with positive long term consequences. I'm just not sure the Triton passes that test.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.