Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull informed the public Tuesday that Canberra has committed some AUS $6.9 billion, or approximately $5.1 billion, to procuring its first six Triton unmanned aerial vehicles and maintaining the aircraft over their operational lifetimes.
The MQ-4 Triton, developed by Northrop Grumman, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 commercial aircraft. The aircraft "will easily be able to complete a lap of the South China Sea after taking off from the Northern Territory," the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday.
The unmanned aircraft was originally developed in conjunction with the United States Navy.
The Australian military moved to buy a capable fleet of six Triton UAVs even before the drones have reached operational status in the US, where Northrop Grumman is headquartered.
Once the aircraft is ready to go, it will be able to fly for 24 hours at a time, giving the aircraft enough time to monitor an area of some 40,000 square kilometers, the Sydney Morning Herald noted.
Canberra anticipates seeing the fruits of the deal in 2023, when the first Triton arrives down under. All six of the surveillance drones are expected to be transferred into Australian possession by 2025, and some reports suggest the Australian military is considering purchasing a seventh Triton.
According to a June 26 joint statement from Turnbull, the Minister for Defense Industry, and the Minister for Defense, the Tritons will pair nicely with the P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that Canberra has also ordered from Boeing.
"The Triton will complement the surveillance role of the P-8A Poseidon aircraft through sustained operations at long ranges as well as being able to undertake a range of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks," the joint statement said, adding that the tandem would improve Australia's anti-submarine capabilities and "maritime strike capability."
Based on the Global Hawk, the Triton is different from the Predator and Reaper combat drones, built by General Atomics, in that it does not carry lethal missiles.
The Tritons will be stationed at the Royal Australian Air Force Base in Edinburgh, South Australia, as well as RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory.