Although the U.S. Navy only has five RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs, plus one that crashed in 2012, the RQ-4s have flown over 12,000 hours for the navy since the first one arrived in 2008. In early 2013 the first production model of the MQ-4C Triton UAV took off and began its flight testing. Previously the navy had just been using two air force MQ-4Bs modified to Triton specs for testing. The naval patrol version is called the MQ-4C Triton and BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance). The navy version has additional protection against salt damage and a set of sensors optimized for monitoring water rather than land.
Earlier in 2013 the navy began forming its first Triton UAV squadron. Called VUP (Unmanned Patrol Squadron) 19 it was activated by the end of 2013 on the east coast of the United States, where it will handle operations over the Atlantic. A second squadron will enter service in 2014 on the west coast to cover the Pacific. The navy plans to buy 68 Tritons and 117 P-8As manned jet aircraft to replace 250 prop driven P-3Cs. This replacement program is supposed to be complete in about a decade. The new surveillance aircraft provide more information over a wider area and do it more quickly. Triton is expected to enter regular service in 2017.
The Triton has already been in service on an experimental basis using the modified RQ-4Bs. In 2012, two years after extensive tests in the Middle East, the RQ-4B Triton began operating with a carrier task force at sea. Circling above the task force at 22,500 meters (70,000 feet), Triton monitored sea traffic off the Iranian coast and the Straits of Hormuz. Anything suspicious is checked out by carrier, land based aircraft, or nearby warships. The Triton aircraft can fly a 24 hour sortie every three days. The first production Triton was delivered in late 2012. In 2009, the first year of Triton testing consisted of 60 flights and over 1,000 hours in the air. The flights were over land and sea areas, even though the UAV sensors are designed mainly to perform maritime reconnaissance.
The Navy is buying the Tritons for over $60 million each. This version is larger (wingspan is 5 meters/15 feet larger, at 42.2 meters/131 feet, and it's nine percent longer at 15.5 meters/48 feet) than the A model and can carry more equipment. To support that, there's a new generator that produces 150 percent more electrical power. The RQ-4 has a range of over 22,000 kilometers and a cruising speed of 650 kilometers an hour.
The first three RQ-4Bs entered service in 2006. At 13 tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs nearly twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful and expensive sensors, which more than double the cost of the aircraft. These "spy satellite quality" sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over 20,000 meters (62,000 feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours.
The maritime RQ-4 is seen as the ultimate replacement for all manned maritime patrol aircraft, at least once it is equipped with more anti-submarine sensors and weapons. The P-8A will probably be the last manned naval search aircraft. Some countries are using satellite communications to put the sensor operators who staff manned patrol aircraft on the ground. Some nations propose sending aircraft like the P-3 or P-8 aloft with just their flight crews, having all the other gear operated from the ground. This enables the aircraft to stay in the air longer and carry more gear.