PATUXENT RIVER, Md.–The German Defense Ministry has been inquiring with the U.S. Navy about Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] Triton, the high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle similar to EuroHawk, the program that sparked major uproar in Germany before its cancellation was announced last year.
Capt. Jim Hoke, the Navy’s Triton program manager, told Defense Daily this week that the German government has been seeking basic information about Triton’s flight performance and airspace certification. Asked whether the level of German interest was serious, Hoke said: “Based on the fact that they keep coming back and wanting to talk I would guess that it is more than just a casual interest.”
Hoke said, however, he is limited in how much data he can share with Berlin because there is no formal agreement between the two countries regarding the MQ-4C Triton. “You are limited in what you can provide and what you can answer. …You can’t share everything without formalization,” he said. “We are able to answer their basic questions. We are able to describe how we can share additional information that they may be asking about.”
Triton, like EuroHawk, is a variant of the U.S. Air Force’s Global Hawk. It is designed to fly at altitudes reaching 60,000 feet for more than 24 hours while carrying a suite of sensors to conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions.
Germany’s $1.3 billion EuroHawk program was the focus of political scandal last year. After spending more than $600 million on the program, it emerged that the aircraft did not meet the certification standards required for European airspace, forcing the Defense Ministry to announce in May 2013 it was canceling the program. Germany had received one prototype EuroHawk and had planned to buy four production versions. The outrage prompted parliamentary investigations and demands for Thomas de Maiziere, then the defense minister and now the interior minister, to resign just a few months ahead of national elections.
It appears, however, the German government has yet to complete the process of formally ending the EuroHawk program. It is unclear whether that’s because of the time it can take to work through what can be a painstaking process to complete termination, or whether the Germans are keeping their options open. The German embassy’s military attache office in Washington did not respond to an email asking about the status of the Eurohawk program. Hoke would not comment because it is outside his portfolio, nor would Northrop Grumman.
One key reason EuroHawk encountered problems with flight certification was reportedly because it lacked an air-collision avoidance radar, a system the Navy is developing for Triton, although it has had technical problems and is behind schedule. Hoke said the Germans were also interested in the recent flight certification plan that Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) completed to fly Triton across the United States.
“We are the first unmanned system like this that has gone through that rigor of a flight clearance,” Hoke said. “What the Germans are very interested in, is, that talks about air worthiness, so that leads to how can you safely integrate into airspace. They are interested in how they do something similar with that.”
Hoke said Triton has gone a long way to meeting the standards required for European airspace, but there would still need to be additional steps for the Germans. “We have not the 100-percent solution, but we have covered a lot of ground towards their concerns based on what we’ve heard from them,” he said.
The Navy’s first Triton arrived at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., last week after completing flight testing at Northrop Grumman’s production facility in Palmdale, Calif. It will soon be outfitted with a sensor package and resume flight tests early next year.
While refusing to comment on EuroHawk, Northrop Grumman said it believes an aircraft based on the Global Hawk would meet Germany’s requirements for signals intelligence (SIGINT) missions.
“We are aware that the German Ministry of Defense is investigating options for platforms to fulfill their airborne SIGINT needs,” Rene Freeland, a spokeswoman for the company, said. “We believe that a Global Hawk-based variant could affordably meet Germany’s requirements for surveillance missions.”
Northrop Grumman was the contractor for the EuroHawk airframe, while the sensors were being developed by EADS subsidiary Cassidian, based in Germany.