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region as we continue to increase our forward presence
globally,” LT Timothy Hawkins, a Navy spokesman,
said in an e-mail response.
Tritons are modified versions of Air Force Global
Hawk UAVs, which operated extensively during the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Global Hawks also have
been used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations in Libya and the Horn of Africa,
in Japan to take infrared images of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant and in Haiti to assess
All of those Global Hawk missions took place in relatively benign environments where the unmanned aircraft
would encounter few, if any, air defenses. But Tritons flying from Guam on ISR missions to the west could be flying into “the lion’s den,” said Jacquelyn Schneider, a PhD
student at George Washington University who has studied the role of unmanned reconnaissance planes in the
pivot to Asia.
A Triton gathering intelligence along the Chinese
coast, especially along the Taiwan Strait, could confront
“one of the most advanced air defenses in the world,
boasting not only long-range surface-to-air missiles, but
also fourth-generation fighters, and impressive naval
destroyers,” Schneider wrote in a paper, “Remotely
Piloted Aircraft and the Pivot Towards Asia.”
How will China react to unmanned spy planes oper-
ating within range of its anti-aircraft weapons? Already,
Chinese fighters occasionally harass manned U.S.
intelligence-gathering planes that are flying in interna-
tional airspace near China.
“Are they more likely to fire on an unmanned aircraft
than a manned one? I think that’s a question we haven’t
figured out yet,” Schneider said in an interview. But China
has “really capable weapons in terms of air defense. You
would have to think carefully about whether to send” a
Triton any closer to China than Taiwan.
China also has demonstrated the capability to
destroy satellites in orbit, taking out one of its own
weather satellites in a 2007 test. That presents a threat
to U.S. Global Positioning System satellites that guide
UAVs, and the communication satellites that link them
to their operators on the ground.
And what about North Korea? Its air defenses include 1960s-era SA- 2, SA- 3 and SA- 5 missiles that have
sufficient range to down an aircraft flying near or over
“North Korea’s missiles are old,” Schneider said, but
the question remains, “will they work?” What Navy
commander wants to find out, she said.
The Tritons will face an additional threat — cyber
The MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its inaugural cross-country ferry flight at Naval Air Station Patuxent
River, Md., Sept. 18 after an approximately 11-hour journey from Northrop Grumman’s Palmdale, Calif., facility. Triton is designed
to fly surveillance missions up to 24 hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles.