Completion of operational assessment (OA) testing on the US Navy's Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicle has edged the manufacturer closer to an agreement with Australia for a planned purchase of the system.
The OA phase involved analysing sensor and aircraft performance over some 60 flight hours, Northrop says. This is anticipated to lead to a Milestone C decision “in spring” and a subsequent low rate initial production contract. Initial operational test and evaluations will then commence in fiscal year 2017.
Canberra offers the most obvious export potential for the UAV, having previously indicated a desire to purchase up to seven systems for operation by the Royal Australian Air Force.
However, it is waiting for the results of development testing before committing to an acquisition.
The results of the OA will be shared with Australia, and a memorandum of agreement is anticipated by January 2017. Canberra will also release a defence white paper at the end of March which is expected to provide more clarity on the deal.
Australia intends to combine the MQ-4C with its eight Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft as a replacement for the RAAF's Lockheed Martin P-3 Orions.
RAAF personnel are expected to train with the US Navy at NAS Patuxent River following the signing of any agreement.
The US is in discussions with a number of other potential export customers for the Triton, with previously identified nations including Germany, Norway and the UK.
The USN plans to buy 68 aircraft, it says, at an initial rate of four per year. The first production aircraft are being assembled at Northrop’s Palmdale, California facility.
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