It’s bad enough that nuclear submarines are plying the sea, each capable of wiping out a continent — but could you imagine a swarm of robo-subs attacking enemy ships, other manned subs, carrying out clandestine missions or laying mines, all autonomously.
The benefits are obvious — risking an expendable robot will save lives, and, may also save the Navy potential costs down the road.
On Feb. 13, 2019, the Navy awarded Boeing a US$43 million contract to produce four of the 51-foot Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) that are capable of traveling some 6,500 nautical miles unaided, The National Interest reported, citing a US Naval Institute report.
The Navy could potentially deploy the Orcas from existing vessels to conduct “mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions,” USNI reported.
But as Popular Mechanics points out, the Orca’s modular design and relatively inexpensive price tag make the robo-subs a potential game-changer for the Navy.
Orca could even pack a Mk. 46 lightweight torpedo to take a shot at an enemy sub itself. It could also carry heavier Mk. 48 heavyweight torpedoes to attack surface ships, or even conceivably anti-ship missiles. Orca could drop off cargos on the seabed, detect, or even lay mines. The modular hardware payload system and open architecture software ensures Orca could be rapidly configured based on need.
This sort of versatility in a single, low-cost package is fairly unheard of in military spending. The nearest rough equivalent is the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, which costs $584 million each and has a crew of 40. While LCS is faster, has the benefit of an onboard crew, and carries a larger payload, Orca is autonomous — and cheaper by orders of magnitude.
The purchase comes amid a push into autonomous vessels for the Navy, and not just because of President Donald Trump’s focus on artificial intelligence, the National Interest reported.
Earlier this year, the Navy’s autonomous Sea Hunter trimaran, engineered for minesweeping and sub-hunting, traveled from San Diego to Hawaii and back again without a single sailor aboard in a historic voyage.
More broadly, the service is eyeing potential unmanned systems for “robot wolfpacks” of remotely-operated surface vessels to function as scouts, decoys, and forward electronic warfare platforms, as Breaking Defense reported in January.
The Navy has pulled all the stops in “the last six or seven months,” Navy surface ship executive Rear Adm. William Galinis told Breaking Defense.
“We’ve got a set of RFIs [that] we’re going to be putting out here probably in the next few days to industry to really start that process, put some proverbial meat on the bones.”
Not surprisingly the US is the first sea power to start building XLUUVs, Forbes reported. But other navies are also entering the arena, including Britain and Japan. And China, Russia, and South Korea also have large UUV projects.
The Orca design will be even larger and therefore could patrol further and could carry more.
The Orca is up to 85 feet long, an order of magnitude larger than anything else out there as the moment. It has a flexible payload section which is large enough to carry multiple torpedo sized payloads.
Initially these could be smaller UUVs. In the future they could be Tomahawk cruise missiles, or as the USNI reported, even mines.
According to The Drive, it looks likely that the new Orcas will borrow significantly from the 51-foot long, 50-ton Echo Voyager’s design, including its modular payload bays. The Orca’s basic performance may be similar, as well.
The diesel-electric Echo Voyager has a maximum speed of around nine miles per hour underwater and can dive to depths up to 11,000 feet deep.
Its batteries give it range of more than 150 miles at a speed of around 3 miles per hour, before it needs to surface and use its air-breathing diesel generator to recharge.
Boeing has said that Echo Voyager could carry enough fuel to allow it to operate autonomously for up to six months at a time, covering total ranges of around 7,500 miles.
And in case you’re wondering, it also has its own sonar-enabled obstacle avoidance system, as well as an inertial navigation system.