A UUV (Unmanned Undersea Vehicle) will be hosted, launched and recovered from a US Navy submarine, officials said. Credit: Handout.

Meet the Orca, a 50-ton undersea drone armed with high-tech sensors capable of several attack options, including torpedoes, able to wage a stealth-like war under the ocean surface without a single human being in tow.

According to a special report from Kris Osborn at National Interest, earlier this year, Boeing was awarded a US$43 million deal to build four Orcas for the US Navy.

The XL-UUV (Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle) Orca is based upon Echo Voyager and Echo Ranger undersea drones, said Captain Pete Small, Program Manager for Unmanned Systems, Naval Sea Systems Command.

The latter is an 84-foot long, massive underwater drone able to reach depths of 11,000 feet and hit ranges up to 6,500 nautical miles, the report said.

The drone has obstacle avoidance, substantial carrying capacity of up to 34-feet, autonomous buoyancy and Synthetic Aperture Sonar, the report said.

Extra Large UUVs, such as Boeing’s Orca, are certainly large enough to accommodate weapons payloads, and it seems such an option is entirely feasible, depending upon the pace of undersea connectivity and fire control, the report said.

It goes without saying that use of any kind of lethal force would, according to Pentagon doctrine, require a human functioning in a role of command and control.

An interesting essay from the National Academy of Sciences, called “Military Robotics: Latest Trends and Spatial Grasp Solutions,” cites the unprecedented advantage of being able to send large undersea drones through the open ocean for as long as 70-days.

An undersea sensing UUV introduces a new realm of combat strategies and tactics.

Unmanned submarines are not only deployable in far more dangerous waters, they’re ultimately disposable. Credit: Courtesy, Anthony Calvert, Cosmos Magazine.

First and foremost would simply be an opportunity for greater undersea security and stealth, the report said.

Given the high-risk nature of its mission scope, an attack submarine could greatly benefit from an increased ability to conduct recon missions close to enemy shorelines and in the open ocean — while remaining undetected.

US submarines are also trained to lay minefields, but the best places to mine are typically heavily trafficked by enemy forces — think harbor entrances and straits, Popular Mechanics reported.

A UUV could sneak into position and sow a minefield without risking a single sailor. The sub could also perform the reverse mission, performing the dangerous mission of hunting and neutralizing mines.

Look at it this way … the Navy might lose a single uncrewed sub, but the enemy might lose an aircraft carrier. And that’s a good trade in anyone’s book.

Not surprisingly, the Orca and other UUVs are also now the subject of a fast-evolving Navy Unmanned Maritime Autonomy Architecture (UMAS) program, which involves engineering and testing “different layers of autonomy.”

At the moment, undersea drones predominantly gather data and then return to a host ship before downloading data, National Interest reported.

The service is now working to evolve and refine a handful of new ways to communicate undersea in real time, in some cases using video-guided autonomous undersea attack drones, the report said.

Whereas communication isn’t an issue in the air, the physics involved in underwater travel imposes several stumbling blocks, Cosmos Magazine reported.

For one thing, water distorts the transmission of radio signals – if you’re in a dry airspace even a few metres down your mobile won’t work — so operators need confidence the craft is following instructions (or figuring out the best way to do so by itself ) without being able to communicate or report on progress.

It needs the autonomy to detect and avoid contact with objects that could damage it – anything from a large rock on the sea floor to a passing whale.

According to War History online, unmanned submarines are not a new idea and have been used extensively in the fields of undersea exploration, mapping some of the deepest parts of the world’s oceans.

This new generation of autonomous undersea weapons systems raises the spectre of the killer robot, so long simply a part of pop-science fiction culture, that is now fast becoming reality.

Public wariness of “the rise of the machines” as it has been described, is likely why little detail has been released.

Sources: National Interest, Popular Mechanics, War History Online, Department of Defense