US Navy Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Programs On Track

Defence Industry

Arlington: The US Navy submarine community is eager to boost its use of unmanned underwater vessels in the coming years, with several big developments almost ready to hit the fleet.

“The XLUUV is critical because it makes up, in some cases, for the lack of submarines.… It gives you additional capacity because you have a limited number of [attack submarines],” Vice Admiral William Houston, the commander of Naval Submarine Forces, told reporters at the Naval Submarine League’s annual conference earlier this month.

The Orca will be launched from a pier and go on long-duration missions. The Navy has said little about the clandestine missions this unmanned diesel-electric submarine will conduct, other than to say its first mission will be laying mines.

With the addition of software that lets the UUV return to the submarine via the torpedo tubes, “every SSN will have the ability to serve as a UUV mothership,” Rear Admiral Casey Moton, the program executive officer for unmanned and small combatants, said at the conference.

Moton said the Orca program has seen significant production delays, but he remains confident the Navy will learn from the initial prototypes being built now and then move into a program of record.

The Navy awarded contracts to Boeing for one test asset and five Orca prototypes, filling an urgent operational need for advanced mining the Pentagon identified in 2015.

Moton attributed the delays in part to pandemic and post-pandemic challenges: production delays, shortages in parts and forgings, supply chain backups for key components like lithium ion batteries.

A Boeing spokesperson said “the Orca program is a development program involving ground-breaking technology.”

“There is no other commercially available XLUUV anywhere,” the spokesperson added.

Despite the delays, Moton said Boeing is very close to achieving full integration on the test asset system, called XLE0, which will deliver to the Navy in early 2023. Boeing said it christened this vehicle in April and will relaunch it by the end of the year to allow for sea trials and delivery next year.

Moton said he couldn’t discuss the timing of a program of record for Orca because that’s part of ongoing FY24 budget negotiations. But he said the test asset and five prototypes will give the Navy a good understanding of the XLUUV program’s anticipated cost and schedule.

Moton said Leidos and L3Harris Technologies were selected over the summer to build the new MUUV and have already completed an integrated baseline review. The program will soon execute a system requirements review and a system functional review.