MQ-4C Triton Has Arrived In Europe, Could Impact Black Sea, Red Sea Operations

Navy MQ-4C drones will give U.S. commanders unique capabilities to surveil maritime areas in and around Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The Navy has established a new forward-deployed MQ-4C detachment at NAS Sigonella in Italy.


The global operational reach of the U.S. Navy's MQ-4C Triton fleet has expanded again with the arrival of one of the drones, which are optimized for long-duration overwater missions, at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy. From Sigonella, Tritons will be able to provide valuable additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance coverage over and around parts of Europe, especially for keeping tabs on activity in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, as well as North Africa and the Middle East. At the same time, this all follows the Navy's decision to significantly scale back its plans for the MQ-4C.

The first MQ-4C to be forward deployed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella arrived at the base on Italy's island of Sicily on March 30. The Triton is from Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19), which has its main base of operations at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida. VUP-19, which also has a detachment at Point Mugu in California, is currently the Navy's only operational MQ-4C squadron. The service does plan to establish a second such unit, VUP-11, in the 2026 Fiscal Year. Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 20 (VX-20) at NAS Patuxent River also has a Triton for test and evaluation use.

A Navy MQ-4C Triton drone arrives at NAS Sigonella in Italy on March 30, 2024. USN

Plane spotters using online flight tracking software first noticed the MQ-4C heading from Jacksonville toward Europe on March 29. VUP-19 now has two forward-deployed detachments outside of the continental United States, the other being at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. VUP-19 Tritons at Andersen have also conducted temporary deployments to Japan. The Navy plans to establish a third VUP-19 detachment, but where it might be based is unclear.

Earlier in March, the Navy held a ceremony to mark the opening of a new hangar at Sigonella specifically designed to house MQ-4Cs. The Triton is a derivative of the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance drone that has been optimized for persistent, over-water missions, which Australia is also in the process of acquiring. Other variants and derivatives of the Global Hawk are in service today with the U.S. Air Force, South Korea, and Japan, as well as with a unit operated collectively by multiple members of the NATO alliance.

From left to right, VUP-19 commander Capt. Ronald H. Rumfelt, Jr., head of Naval Air Forces Vice Adm. Daniel “Undra” Cheever, Commander, and commander of NAS Sigonella Capt. Aaron Shoemaker cut a ceremonial ribbon in a new hangar at the base in Italy dedicated to supporting MQ-4C operations during a ceremony on March 2, 2024. USN

Compared to the original RQ-4A, the MQ-4C notably has a strengthened fuselage and reinforced wings, as well as additional features to help prevent the build-up of ice on the leading edges and around the air intake and improve its ability to withstand lightning strikes. These changes give the Triton the ability to swoop down to lower altitudes to more closely investigate objects of interest on the surface.

As originally designed, the MQ-4C's sensor suite included an active electronically scanned radar with surface search and synthetic aperture modes, electro-optical and infrared video cameras in a turret under the nose, and electronic support measures systems for collecting electronic intelligence passively. In recent years, manufacturer Northrop Grumman has started delivering upgraded Tritons to the Navy in a so-called Multi-Intelligence (Multi-Int) configuration with additional electronic and signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT) capabilities. Tritons are also intended to work very closely together with Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft and aircraft carrier strike groups.

A Multi-Int MQ-4C Triton drone. Northrop Grumman

"In the interest of operational security, we cannot comment on details of future operations and deployments, but can say that U.S. Sixth Fleet is committed to supporting U.S., Allied and partner interests in the region, and the deployment of the MQ-4C Triton gives us the opportunity to increase interoperability and enhance the combined capabilities amongst our NATO Allies and partners," a spokesperson for U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) told The War Zone.

U.S. Sixth Fleet is the numbered U.S. Navy fleet associated with U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF), which oversees all of the service's operations in and around Europe and Africa, and commands are often referred to collectively.

“The addition of the MQ-4C Triton, right here in Sigonella, is another milestone in the successful development of the Triton program,” Navy Capt. Aaron Shoemaker, NAS Sigonella's commanding officer also said in a statement. “We are proud to support VUP-19 as they integrate with the Fleet to expand the roles of unmanned aircraft systems operations in our region and beyond.”

Sigonella has been a key strategic staging point for U.S. military crewed and uncrewed operations in this part of the world for decades. The Navy's MQ-4C joins Air Force RQ-4As and NATO RQ-4Ds already at the base on Sicily. Global Hawks have been particularly active in and around the Black Sea since the run-up to Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022. RQ-4s and other drones, as well as crewed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft have continued to fly over that body of water regularly since then, gathering intelligence that can be disseminated, and, in some cases, forwarded to Ukrainian authorities.

Outside of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Black Sea, as well as the Mediterranean, have long been very strategic maritime regions where the U.S. military has high demands for routine ISR coverage. Air Force RQ-4s have used their very long endurance and other capabilities to help provide important ISR coverage elsewhere in Europe over the years, too. With their over-water and maritime surveillance capabilities, Navy MQ-4Cs could be particularly useful for flights over other strategic bodies of water around Europe further to the north, where Russian activity is also often a concern.

The RQ-4s in service with the Air Force today have much more limited sensor suites compared to those found on MQ-4Cs, in addition to their overall design not being optimized for maritime operations. Altogether, Navy Tritons will provide U.S. commanders in Europe significant additional capabilities over what is currently provided by Global Hawk.

In addition to supporting operations in Europe, Sigonella offers a prime location for launching ISR aircraft like Tritons on sorties around potential hotspots in Africa and the Middle East.

Navy P-8As have been routinely flying in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coasts of Israel and the Gaza Strip since the conflict erupted there last October. Aerial overwatch is only set to become more important in that context as the U.S. military works to establish a temporary offshore pier to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. There continue to be questions and concerns about risks to U.S. forces and how exactly security will be provided in the course of that operation, which you can read more about here.

From Sigonella, Navy MQ-4C could fly to the Red Sea and even further south, areas where Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen have been launching regular attacks on U.S. and other foreign warships, as well as commercial vessels. Tritons could help provide additional situational awareness and support strikes on Houthi weapons and other assets ashore.

Navy Triton operations already benefit directly from experience gained over more than a decade of operating older Global Hawk variants over and around the Persian Gulf. Between 2009 and 2022, the Navy flew a small fleet of early-generation Block 10 RQ-4As in the maritime surveillance role from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This was part of a program called the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D), which lasted much longer than expected and fed directly into the development of the MQ-4C and of tactics, techniques, and procedures for operating those drones. You can read more about BAMS-D here.

One of the Navy's now-retired BAMS-D RQ-4As. USN

At the same time, BAMS-D also looks to have been a contributing factor in the Navy's decision to significantly truncate its plans for the MQ-4C, despite Triton's still-growing operational footprint outside of the continental United States. In 2019, Iranian forces shot down one of the BAMS-D drones while it was flying over the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. This in turn immediately prompted a very public debate about the vulnerability of Global Hawks and their derivatives, especially in a potential future high-end conflict against a near-peer competitor like China.

In 2022, the Navy decided to dramatically truncate its total planned purchases of MQ-4Cs from 70 to 27. This figure includes an MQ-4C that was lost in a crash in 2018, as well as one drone retained for testing, according to a declassified Pentagon Selected Acquisition Report (SAR).

This all comes as the Air Force is planning to divest the last of its Global Hawks in the 2027 Fiscal Year. The service is also working to retire its U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane fleet by 2026. The War Zone has long highlighted how this adds to already significant evidence that the Air Force is planning to supplant both of those types with advanced, high-flying, classified drones, as well as new space-based capabilities, if it hasn't already started doing so.

An Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk sits in the foreground with a two-seat TU-2S trainer seen coming in to land behind. USAF

What all of this might mean for the future service career of the Navy's MQ-4Cs remains to be seen. Whatever the case, Tritons based at NAS Sigonella will now be able to additional ISR capacity over and around parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

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