Like The Air Force, America's Navy Plans To Operate Drone Swarms

Jared Keller

Key point: The purchase comes amid a push into autonomous vessels for the Navy.

On Feb. 13, the Navy awarded Boeing a $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 U.S. Naval Institute reported.

According to USNI, 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."

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 a Navy that's struggling to grow to 335 hulls:

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.

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