Low- and High-Band Receivers Clear Way for EP-3E Sunset
By Jeff Newman
After receiving Pentagon approval last fall, the U.S. Navy in December began preliminary design review of an upgraded signals-intelligence variant of the MQ-4C Triton that will allow the unmanned aircraft to replace the aging EP-3E ARIES II as the service’s signals-intelligence platform.
As the Navy’s new, persistent, high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, the Triton comes equipped with a four-sensor suite that includes maritime radar, an automatic identification system receiver, an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera and, as currently designed, electronic support measures (ESM) that detect radar signals of seafaring vessels.
The upgraded variant will replace the baseline ESM with a “more robust” set of low- and high-band multi-intelligence (multi-INT) signals receivers, “a capability that is designed to allow the sundown of the EP-3,” said Capt. Tom Hoover, deputy program manager of the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office at Naval Air Systems Command.
Hoover compared the difference between ESM and the multi-INT package to the resolution disparity of old tube televisions and modern high-definition TVs.
“Electronic signals have a wide variety of characteristics. ESM picks up a few of those—some basic parameters like their frequencies and pulse repetitions—so you can do some rough locations and classification on those to build with your radar contacts and EO/IR sensors,” he said. “Our low- and high-band receivers are designed to expand the spectrum of what we can intercept and gain many more characteristics of that signal, which tightens up our ability to locate those signals, identify what they’re coming from and tie them to other contacts.”
Hoover said the original plan had been to develop a multi-INT variant of the Triton alongside the initial ESM version.
“We had two programs, essentially—we had this baseline that’s going to field first, and it was going to have its own operational evaluation and initial operational capability (IOC), and then, several years later, we were going to field the multi-INT variant with another operational evaluation and IOC,” he said.
But, to expedite the multi-INT variant’s delivery to the fleet, the Navy decided its ultimate goal was to field it as the lone version of Triton, removing the need for separate operational evaluation and IOC periods.
“It just brings this capability to the fleet sooner. It was always in our plan as an upgrade following the baseline Triton,” Hoover said.
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall signed the Navy’s plan in September at the same time he approved the Triton to enter low-rate initial production, a decision known as “Milestone C.”
The program office will deliver two baseline MQ-4Cs outfitted with the ESM sensor in 2018, “in order to bring the basic Triton capability early to the fleet,” Hoover said. From there, each future Triton will be built with the multi-INT package, while the two ESM aircraft will be retrofitted with the upgraded signals receivers.
The multi-INT variant is scheduled for early operational capability and deployment in 2020, followed by an operational evaluation and IOC by late 2021.
The change in strategy comes during a period of significant forward momentum for the Triton. In addition to the Milestone C decision last fall, the platform completed its 100th flight Oct. 17 from Naval Air Station Patuxent River, its route taking it across the Chesapeake Bay and over USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), which had just departed Baltimore following its commissioning two days prior. The Triton then got its first commissioned squadron when Unmanned Patrol Squadron (VUP) 19 stood up at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida. The Navy’s first unmanned aerial vehicle squadron, VUP-19 is scheduled to deploy to 7th Fleet with the two baseline Tritons in spring 2018.
System development and demonstration for those baseline Tritons is slated to wrap up in August after ground and flight testing in the spring and summer, which Hoover said will be focused on making the aircraft easier to use rather than ensuring its systems work.
“That is well in our rearview mirror,” he said. “The system has demonstrated its performance to such a level that we’re not testing it to specification compliance. We’ve met spec, we’ve beat spec, so we’re testing it and stressing it to the max that we can—the way we believe the fleet is going to stress the system—and trying to work out any and all gremlins and get them corrected before we hand it over to the users. We’re years ahead of where a lot of programs are in preparing to hand a system over to the fleet, flying it in an operational manner, as opposed to an engineering manner.”
Hoover called the transition to the Triton “a generational change.”
“Having flown EP-3s when I joined the Navy, those are very good and very reliable systems, but they’re very user-intensive. That’s why it’s a large aircraft full of operators, because you need them in order to translate the information coming out of the system,” he said. “Now advance several decades, and because of the leaps and bounds we’ve made in computing power and the speed that we can transmit information over the horizon, Triton’s systems are able to do a lot of processing and data analysis for the operators, so we can use fewer of them and still gain that same—and, in most cases, better—resolution on all these areas, and we can do it remotely.”
In addition, the Triton doesn’t need to land to swap out aircrews and is designed to fly up to 24 hours without refueling.
“With the EP-3, we can surge for a limited period of time for 24/7-type ops; we’re designing Triton for 24/7 from day one,” Hoover said. “What’s really exciting with that is you no longer have to plan periods of observation. We will have constant observation.
“What keeps everyone here working so hard and motivated is what a drastic change Triton’s capability is from what the Navy has today, how well the system has performed for us and how much enhanced capability we’re seeing in this latest build that we’re going to provide to the fleet to deploy,” he continued. “We really are 14 months away from that system being ready to be placed overseas for the warfighter, which is phenomenal for how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. And then, at the same time all that is going on, we’re designing, developing and integrating this next set of sensors that takes the E-P3’s capabilities and goes well beyond to provide that steady, persistent surveillance worldwide. When you come from our community in the intelligence world, there is a huge hunger for the capability that we’re bringing.”
Jeff Newman is a staff writer and contributing editor to the Naval Aviation News magazine.