Here's how Australia's new $7 billion fleet of giant Triton drones will keep an eye on the South China Sea

The MQ-4C drone. Picture: Department of Defence

The Turnbull government has committed to a promise it made five years ago in Opposition, announcing it will buy six long-range surveillance drones from US defence supplier Northrop Grumman.

The only difference now is the cost. Back in 2013, then Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston said buying seven Triton drones would cost $1.5 billion. Realistically, the price even then was closer to between $2 and $3 billion.

Today, the cost of six MQ-4C drones will set the country back a cool $7 billion.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull committed to seven MQ-4C drones in the 2016 Defence White Paper, and is expected to make the official announcement today that six of the aircraft will start phasing out the RAAF’s current fleet of P-3 Orions and work alongside 12 new P-8 Poseidon manned surveillance planes.

The other big change since 2013 is the focus on exactly what the drones will surveil. Back then, the main argument against committing to the MQ-4C drones was their capability of seeing tiny asylum-seeker boats through heavy cloud cover.

In 2018, the bulk of work for the drones with a wingspan equivalent to a Boeing 737 will be “surveillance missions throughout Asia”.

For “throughout Asia”, you can read “South China Sea”.

While Fairfax Media reports it “understands” the Tritons will not fly out of the Butterworth air base the ADF operates in Malaysia “in the immediate future”, Defence Minister Marise Payne has also just announced a $22 million upgrade for that same base.

The Tritons have 360-degree scanning capability and an Automatic Identification System which it can use to classify different types of ships:


Photo: Northrop Grumman

Crucially, it can fly for 24 hours at 18,000 metres and in that time, cover 44,000 square kilometres. Or, around 18,000km before it has to come in to refuel.

The US also uses MQ-4Cs for surveillance in the South China Sea and four other areas of coverage:


Photo: Northrop Grumman

Here’s what it’s carrying on those epic journeys:


Photo: Northrop Grumman

The Triton systems will also be operational in Germany, which bought four for $3.4 billion in April. There has been interest in sales to India and the UK in the past, but no confirmation.

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