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The US Navy just got it’s first big robo sub


One day the sea will be filled with autonomous underwater drones, subs, and other vehicles …. all doing “whatever” …


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We’ve all heard about self-driving cars – that work and don’t work – but how about autonomous nuclear subs that creep around the US East coast and other drone submarines? After years of development finally the US Navy recently received the first of six “Orca” robotic submarines. The unmanned submarines, designed to undertake hazardous missions thousands of miles from a friendly port, and which will one day maybe be powered by DARPA’s undersea service stations, will make the Navy more lethal and unpredictable to an adversary. The robo-sub’s ability to infiltrate hostile waters without risking human lives will lend itself to a number of roles, including assassin, spy, and more.


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The first Orca sub, known officially as XLE0, was accepted by the US Navy on December 20 in Huntington Beach, California. The Navy is buying six Orcas from defense contractor Boeing, with the first sub being a testing and evaluation craft. The others will be fully operational robo-subs capable of actual missions. XLE0 is likely the test sub, followed by XLEs 1 to 5.

According to a statement by the Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA, Orca “is a cutting-edge, autonomous, unmanned diesel-electric submarine with a modular payload section to execute a variety of missions critical to enhancing the Navy’s undersea prowess.”


It’s big! The ORCA XLUUV.


The Orca subs are based on Boeing’s Echo Voyager prototype Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV). Echo Voyager weighs 50 tons and is 51 feet long by 8.5 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall. It has a range of 6,500 miles and a maximum diving depth of 11,000 feet. The Navy has not released specifications for the Orcas but has acknowledged they are bigger than Echo Voyager.


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The Orca subs use a hybrid diesel electric drive system that will give them a top speed of eight knots. Diesel engines require oxygen to operate, so diesel electric-powered subs often need to surface frequently. The Orcas, however, will run off battery power for extended periods, allowing them to stay submerged longer.

Like a pickup truck, the Orca’s most important feature is its payload bay. The 34 foot long payload bay will be in the middle of the sub, stretching it as depicted above. According to NAVSEA, the bay will allow “seamless integration of sensors, communication systems, and other mission-specific components.”

The sky’s the limit when it comes to what Orca can do. It could, for example, sortie ahead of carrier and other task forces, detecting enemy ships and submarines before the manned vessels enter range. It could creep in close to and then monitor the electronic communications of enemy forces on land or at sea, its small size making the Orca difficult to detect.


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If US GPS satellites were disrupted, an Orca could surface in the path of American warplanes or cruise missiles undertaking a long-range mission, relaying positioning data as the aircraft passed overhead. It could even search for missing sailors and airmen after a battle, aiding in rescue efforts in locations where the enemy might still be lurking about.

These are all variations on missions that submarines have traditionally undertaken, but using Orca instead means that American attack submarines, like the Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Virginia-class attack subs, will be able to concentrate on sinking enemy ships.

The Navy doesn’t mention Orca’s ability to carry weapons, but it most certainly can. In May 2022, the Navy program manager for Unmanned Maritime Systems spoke at a meeting of the Mine Warfare Association and stated that Orca will use its payload bay to carry mines to a minelaying location. Once there, the robo-sub can quietly disperse the mines and then return to a friendly port.


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The Orca’s combination of payload, range, and unmanned capability make it a candidate for particularly risky missions. An Orca could, for example, depart from Naval Base Guam on the island of Guam and travel to the Taiwan Strait. Once there, it could sow mines in the projected path of any Chinese invasion force headed for the island. This would be a particularly dangerous mission and one ideal for an unmanned boat.

Other onboard weapons carried in the payload bay could include anti-ship missiles like the Naval Strike Missile or the environmentally friendly corn fuelled Tomahawk land attack cruise missile.

China’s navy is adding more ships at a marathon pace, with the Pentagon estimating Beijing’s fleet at 395 ships by 2025. That’s a hundred more ships than the US Navy. The Orcas aren’t as capable as real submarines, but they can do important work that frees up manned subs to concentrate on more lethal missions.

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