The U.S. Navy Has Orca Robot Submarines on the Way that Could Transform Naval Warfare

Sebastien Roblin

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.

Meet the Echo Voyager

There aren’t too many specifications available on the Orca, but that’s not the case for the craft the Orca is derived from—Boeing’s Echo Voyager, which began testing in 2017. The Orca, like Voyager, will remain small enough to lower into the water at a pier, rather than requiring maintenance and replenishment in the water. 

The 50-ton Voyager was developed by Boeing’s PhantomWorks division, which is devoted to advanced new technologies, succeeding a series of smaller Echo Seeker and Echo Ranger UUVs. The 15.5-meter long Echo Voyager has a range of nearly 7,500 miles. It has also deployed at sea up to three months in a test, and theoretically could last as long as six months.

Supposedly, Voyager also can dive as deep as 3,350 meters—while few military submarines are (officially) certified for dives below 500 meters. 

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