The United States Navy has finally taken delivery of the first of Boeing’s underwater drones, the Orca extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles (XLUUV) after several years’ delay. This delivery comes on the heels of an announcement by Boeing stating that the acceptance testing of Orca was completed in early December. The testing was done in partnership with the Navy, and after completing several sea trials, Boeing will deliver four more Orcas to the Navy, with the last example set to be delivered in June 2024.
This breakthrough, according to Boeing, is the result of over a decade of groundbreaking work. The Orca is a fully autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) with a large payload capacity. It is a derivative of a previous private company known as Echo Voyager and is the culmination of years of research and development.
In addition to being delayed, costs have risen significantly, as a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) beginning in September 2022 found that Boeing did not address key differences between Echo Voyager and Orca prior to manufacturing, requiring redesign of key components and causing delays.
The 80-ton, 85-foot-long Orca is highly modular and is designed to accommodate different mission requirements. Its primary function includes “guidance and control, navigation, autonomy, situational awareness, core communications, power distribution, propulsion and maneuvering, and mission sensors.” The vehicle also boasts a distinctive extended mast, which is raised when close to the surface during sea trials and provides a number of functions, including satellite connectivity.
The large payload section of the XLUUV is designed to support an eight-ton payload capacity and can be reconfigured for a variety of mission sets. The Navy is primarily planning to use this space for mines.
Future payloads are expected to include synthetic aperture sonar as a feature, allowing Orca to map the ocean floor. The Navy also plans to add additional weapons systems to arm its XLUUVs, including torpedoes, cruise missiles, and aerial drones, to perform different missions such as minesweeping, electronic warfare, and underwater surveillance.
The Orca’s diesel-electric hybrid propulsion system enables it to stay submerged for long periods of time and move underwater silently. This capability, combined with the implementation of a covered propeller, allows the Orca to move quietly and efficiently.
The primary delivery method for the Orca is still uncertain. The vehicle is too large for submarines to transport or launch, so it will need to be launched from a large surface ship or via a dock. The Navy Expeditionary Maritime Bases (ESB) could be modified for the launch and recovery of larger platforms such as Orca.
The future maritime fight will increasingly feature unmanned platforms, and under-the-wave operations could see the greatest impact. The adversaries, especially China, have invested heavily in unmanned underwater vehicles.
The delivery of the first Orca marks a significant step forward for the Navy and its future maritime operations. We can expect to see more developments in this field, as the impact of unmanned underwater vehicles becomes more and more crucial.