Meet the Orca: The Navy's New Autonomous Submarine That Will Fight the Wars of the Future

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Washington has completed tests of a drone submarine that is capable of making long trips by itself. This is an important step towards warships that can fight on their own.

At a military parade celebrating its 70th anniversary, the People’s Republic of China unveiled, amongst many other exotic weapons, two HSU-001 submarines—the world’s first large diameter autonomous submarines to enter military service.

The unarmed robot submarines visibly had communication masts and sonar aperture suggestive of their intended role as tireless underwater surveillance systems intended to report on the movements of warships and submarines of other navies in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

While the United States may not be the first to operationally drone a Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), it is not far behind with a slightly smaller sub Extra Large UUV. In February 2019, the Navy awarded Boeing a $274.4 million contract to build four (later increased to five) Orca autonomous vehicles, beating out a more elongated and cylindrical design proposed by Lockheed Martin. 

And the publicly available details on the Orca suggest it could prove a highly-capable platform that—unusually for new weapons technologies—is surprisingly cheap.

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