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The U.S. Navy has awarded a contract to Boeing for four Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs). In other words: giant drone subs.
The unmanned submarines, called Orcas, will be able to undertake missions from scouting to sinking ships at very long ranges. Drone ships like the Orca will revolutionize war at sea, providing inexpensive, semi-disposable weapon systems that can fill the gaps in the front line—or simply go where it’s too dangerous for manned ships to go.
The contract, announced today, stipulates Boeing will get $43 million for “fabrication, test, and delivery of four Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUVs) and associated support elements.” That’s just over ten million bucks per boat.
Boeing based its winning Orca XLUUV design on its Echo Voyager unmanned diesel-electric submersible. The 51-foot-long submersible is launched from a pier and can operate autonomously while sailing up to 6,500 nautical miles without being connected to a manned mother ship, according to the Navy. Eventually, the Navy could also use the Orca XLUUV for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions, according to a Navy outline of the system’s capability development.
Meanwhile, the Navy is also exploring the possible use of Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (LDUUVs) as another rapid acquisition program. The LDUUV would be a vehicle launched from either a Virginia-class fast attack submarine or from a surface ship. LDUUVs could perform similar missions as the XLUUV, however, the LDUUV would need to remain relatively close to the mother ship instead of operating autonomously like the XLUUV.
What is needed is will—the fortitude to recognize that we have to change the way we currently operate. We must display the courage necessary to move forward, to question established concepts and methods, to take risks, and to learn from our mistakes. We will have to experiment with and refine emerging concepts, and we will have to become more comfortable with autonomous operations across vast distances. The risks are worth it, however. A more widely postured and more uniformly lethal surface force will play a significant role in maintaining the United States’ position as the dominant naval power, something from which the world has benefited handsomely for more than seven decades.