When 'unmanned' doesn't mean fewer people: Inside the Navy's Triton program

By Audrey Decker  / November 16, 2022

As the Navy's Triton unmanned aircraft program triples its theater requirements over the next two years, the service hopes to shake off the perception that its unmanned platforms might require less manpower and fewer resources than manned systems.

The service’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system is on track to require more support than one may think, program officials say, due to the intricacy and expansion of the program.

Unmanned systems are drawing a spotlight as the service builds out its fiscal year 2024 budget and the Navy prepares to make its case to lawmakers, who have previously been skeptical of the service’s uncrewed plans.

While the Navy might be able to decrease manpower for its unmanned systems in the future, initial forays into the unmanned world will require “significant manpower” to be successful, according to Capt. Daniel Boman, commodore of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11.

The need for manpower will correspond with the expansion of the Triton program to eventually include three "orbits” in 7th Fleet, 6th Fleet and 5th Fleet to provide 24-hour intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support. The service is poised to set up its first orbit in the 7th Fleet by August 2023, with the other two to follow by the first quarter of FY-25.

“What we're going to do in the future with the asset is cover more ground and larger volumes. When you get a platform that can fly out in a persistent manner, you're going to collect more information. That will take more people, more manpower to manage that information and the flight of that aircraft,” Boman told Inside Defense during a Nov. 15 interview.

Currently, Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19, based out of Jacksonville, FL, utilizes about 350 personnel to conduct operations with two Tritons in one orbit, with only one aircraft in the air at a time.

By FY-25, the Navy will require each of the three orbits to operate four aircraft, for a total of 12, and operate multiple airborne Tritons simultaneously.

Manpower will need to increase to just north of 600 personnel by FY-25, Boman said. It won’t be a one-for-one increase in manpower as VUP-19 will learn efficiencies with the aircraft, he added.

But as the program looks to increase its personnel numbers in the future, it also must compete against all the other Navy programs for aviation billets.

The service plans to mitigate this by transferring billets from the VQ community, which flies the EP-3 fleet, to the Triton community. The Navy is replacing its aging EP-3 fleet, which conducts multi-intelligence reconnaissance, with Triton.

The number of billets “should be enough” to cover the community as the Navy sundowns VQ, Boman said.

“We're not going to see an increase in funding, but we'll see the manpower come from inventories to supply the manpower needed for this particular asset,” Boman said. “It is a bridging solution to bring VQ down, bring VUP up and use manpower in an efficient manner and in a timely manner so we're not wasting tax dollars.”

While the Navy has enough billets to get to three orbits, the number of personnel needed past FY-25 is still very fluid.

“There's potential for growth in the future after 2025 depending on the work and depending on the number of flights or what we're going to do out in those theaters,” Boman said.

Cmdr. Michael Minervini, the Triton requirements officer in the Navy’s air warfare office, said the service has adequately funded the program to execute its requirements.

In a Nov. 4 interview with Inside Defense, he declined to discuss what future funding would look like, noting it’s “pre-decisional.”

The program may require some adjustments along the way, but Minervini said he is confident the Navy’s plan to stand up three orbits will be successful.

“It is a complicated problem making sure you have the right amount of people who are well-trained to execute the mission, but the plan is in place to do that. And as far as from the top side, as far as how many people you need big picture, the training plan is set up through the program office and in the fleet,” Minervini said.

Boman echoed Minervini’s point, adding that it’s not an easy task to sundown a decades-old weapons system while bringing in Triton.

The commodore said the service is “confident that it's time to sundown VQ [and] that we need to move forward with a new technology."

“Aligning all the pieces there is a difficult process. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure that the manpower is aligned to bring the weapons system alive,” Boman said.

Currently, the Triton program maintains a forward operating base in Guam and a main operating base mission control system and aircraft hangar in Jacksonville, FL, while executing a seasonal detachment to an alternate forward base within the 7th Fleet.

The Jacksonville facility will hold three main operating bases and each main operating base will serve an area of responsibility, said Cmdr. Stephen Williams, commanding officer of VUP-19.

“They are actually breaking ground on my second main operating base that is scheduled currently to complete sometime in the November-December time period, so already be able to have the capacity to go to a second orbit,” Williams told Inside Defense during an Oct. 24 interview.

The second and third orbits will be serviced by MOBs in Jacksonville, Williams said, and the fourth MOB will be built at Whidbey Island, WA to conduct West Coast operations.

On a typical mission set, the aircraft can fly upwards of 20 hours and the aircrew works in eight-hour shifts. Each shift consists of five aircrew -- for a total of 15 aircrew per flight event.

“Based on how long that mission is, we may have three shifts of eight-hour blocks or as low as two shifts. [It] really just depends on how long the duration of applied events that our tasking commander wants us to fly that particular day,” Williams said.

Triton also has a rotational maintenance detachment of roughly 35 people. The Navy brings fleet support representations from Triton builder Northrop Grumman or L3Harris to assist the VUP-19 maintainers with specific troubleshooting, he added.

Forward maintainers will work 12 hours on and 12 hours off to ensure that the aircraft is turned around roughly in a 10-hour period for its next flight opportunity, Williams said.

“We are prescribed to go out to three different forward operating base locations in 7th Fleet, 6th Fleet and then eventually in 5th Fleet,” he said. “At those different sites, you can expect roughly 30 to 35 personnel of the maintenance variety to be on those sites working those 12-hour shifts."

Additional mission support

The Triton program requires a team of aerographers to conduct weather forecasting for every mission since the aircraft doesn’t contain a weather avoidance radar system.

“The pilot will routinely refer to the AGs to help them understand the forecast that's in front of them and considering that the forecast can be 24 hours long, and the weather can change in that window, they need to know they're flying this very large, winged aircraft into a turbulent area or consecutive area and what they need to do to get around it,” Boman said.

However, future manning for aerographers beyond FY-25 is still being decided among Navy leadership.

When asked about potential aerographer shortages, Boman said that the Navy is “building a plan to bring AGs on board as we bring those different orbits online.”

There is a possibility of inserting weather avoidance sensors into the aircraft, Boman said, but that decision depends on funding.

During Triton’s early operational capability deployment to Guam, Minervini said the program learned how challenging weather in the Pacific can be for an unmanned vehicle.

“From that learning already in place, we have some mitigations to get around the destructive weather in that [area of responsibility],” Minervini said.

Another crucial area of support needed for unmanned aviation is the number of enlisted, information technology positions, according to Williams.

“Again, this is a flying computer so [it’s] well within their wheelhouse to tackle, however their position in Triton is so huge and so critical that we have them here to actually work on the aircraft because this is new ground for these particular rates,” Williams said.

Having a critical linchpin in the IT world to ensure that Triton is up and operational is new ground for aviation, Williams said.

“Looking forward to the future, it's definitely something that needs to be watched with a steady hand and can't go unnoticed to ensure that we have the proper right size,” Williams said.

Future requirements

In the years ahead, the Navy hopes to achieve what officials are characterizing as “steady state” operations with Triton, meaning two aircraft will be able to operate in the same area of responsibility at the same time. This technology is called multi-UA control, according to Williams.

Even though one aircraft can fly for about 21 hours, to deliver persistent coverage of an area, there needs to be a minimum of four aircraft per AOR, Williams said.

“In order to have that routine, unblinking eye of coverage, you would want to have one aircraft on station, one aircraft transiting to station and one aircraft coming home from on station and then one aircraft in maintenance,” Williams said.

The squadron doesn’t currently have multi-UA technology but “the program office is set to deliver that to us at a later date,” Williams added.

Multi-UA technology is largely in software development right now, according to Minervini.

“The plan is to execute the first three stand-ups of orbits and then get to multi-UAV a couple of years down the road here,” Minervini said.

Eventually, the program will also need to move from two pilots to one pilot controlling a single aircraft. While Triton is programmed to be flown by one pilot, currently the service flies the aircraft with two pilots due to its human-machine interface, Williams said.

When pilots see an issue or concern with Triton, they see “cascading faults,” Williams described.

“This is a flying computer so the way that this displays issues that the pilots see is unlike what you see in manned aviation and so what they get typically see is a running list in time order of what the issue is and its severity,” Williams said.

It’s complicated work for a pilot to diagnose an issue displayed because one issue the pilot might see might not be the root cause for the problem at hand, Williams said.

The Navy is thinking “outside of the box” to find what is needed for the squadron to feel comfortable flying Triton single-piloted, he said.

“If left unchecked or unmitigated it could potentially drive a manning concern that we would need two pilots in perpetuity,” Williams said. “While we have challenges from this perspective, they are not insurmountable to the fact that we will be finding ourselves in a manning situation.”