Undersea Pioneer

The US Navy gets its first Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle

Atul Chandra

The United States (US) Navy is the leader in the development of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUV) followed only by a handful of other navies, that are significantly invested in this cutting-edge new capability. In December 2023, the US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command announced that it had recently taken delivery of its first Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) from Boeing. Named Orca, the XLUUV combines several advanced technologies to deliver a significant advance to the US Navy’s undersea capabilities.

Boeing delivered the frst Orca Extra Large Uncrewed Undersea Vehicle to the US Navy in December 2023
Boeing delivered the frst Orca Extra Large Uncrewed Undersea Vehicle to the US Navy in December 2023

Designated by the US Navy as a Test Asset System XLE0, this autonomous undersea vehicle can operate independently of a host vehicle and marks a major revolution in the future of undersea combat. The Orca XLUUV can operate autonomously for extended periods with a long-endurance capability that allows it to remain in an area of interest for sustained durations.

A cutting-edge, autonomous, unmanned diesel-electric submarine with a modular payload section, the Orca XLUUV can execute a variety of missions critical to enhancing the US Navy’s undersea prowess. It can be configured to accommodate various payloads, which can be seamlessly integrated with various sensors, communication systems and other mission-specific components, to meet evolving operational requirements.

The development of advanced revolutionary technologies for warfare requires sustained funding and years of effort before they come to fruition. This is in evidence with the XLUUV programme, which has required nearly a decade’s worth of research, design, manufacturing and testing by the US Navy’s Programme Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants (PEO USC) and the Unmanned Maritime Systems Programme Office (PMS 406). The Orca’s manufacturer, Boeing, alone has over 50 years of experience building and operating undersea vehicles.

“This has been a very busy year for the XLUUV team and their hard work is culminating in delivery of the navy’s first-ever unmanned diesel-electric submarine,” said Capt. Scot Searles, programme manager of the Unmanned Maritime Systems (PMS 406) programme office. “We look forward to continued success with our Boeing teammates in fielding this important capability for the warfighter.”

According to the US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, in-water testing of the XLE0 began in Huntington Beach, California in the spring of 2023. It has undergone several phases of at-sea testing, including above and below surface manoeuvres to demonstrate the vehicle’s unique capabilities. The lessons learnt from testing the XLE0 will be applied to the first five Orca XLUUVs to be manufactured by Boeing.

Boeing initiated the design and development of Echo Voyager, a proof-of-concept XLUUV in 2012. Echo Voyager commenced at-sea testing in 2017 and was a forerunner to the US Navy’s Orca XLUUV competition. Boeing’s Echo Voyager remains the world’s only vehicle of its size and capability and transited hundreds of nautical miles autonomously, while also accumulating over 10,000 hours operating at sea.


Accelerated Initiative

The US Navy is rapidly building its UUV capability and in July 2023, held a ceremony to establish Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Flotilla Three (UUVFLOT-3) as a subordinate command to UUV Squadron One (UUVRON-1) at Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme. UUVFLOT-3 is the second subordinate command for UUVRON-1 and the US Navy’s first XLUUV command. “The mission ahead is a challenging one, and your team will set the course for all future XLUUV employment and mission sets,” said Rear Adm. Rick Seif, commander, Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, in a naval message to UUVFLOT-3.

“What we are doing now in support of unmanned vehicles is key to the future success of our great navy,” said Cmdr. Timothy Rochholz, commander, UUVFLOT-3, in a speech during the ceremony. “We must accomplish the mission our commanders ask of us, deliver Orca to the fleet, ready to fight, as soon as possible—that is our charge.”

“UUVFLOT-3 will support the initial operational testing of the ORCA XLUUV evaluation and follow on fielding and employment in support of combatant commander requirements. The Orca XLUUV will complement our submarines in the undersea domain, while reducing risk to our true asymmetric advantage, our Sailors,” said Capt. Jason Weed, commander, UUVRON-1 in his speech during the ceremony.

The Orca XLUUV is the first extra-large vehicle and the largest UUV in the US Navy inventory. It will be able to perform dangerous missions such as undersea mining operations, which would earlier have put sailors in harm’s way as it would have required the use of a manned submarine. Along with the Orca XLUUV, the US Navy uses a diverse family of remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles which are outfitted with mission-specific payloads capable of gathering intelligence and undertaking offensive mining.

The US Navy is also modifying its submarines to launch UUVs. In December 2023, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Inc (HII) announced that it had been part of the first end-to-end submarine torpedo tube launch and recovery of a REMUS medium UUV using the Yellow Moray system. The submarine USS Delaware (SSN 791) belonging to the US Navy’s Submarine Readiness Squadron 32 was used for the trials. The Yellow Moray system will allow the US submarine force to launch UUVS from their torpedo tubes, significantly enhancing their surveillance capability while at sea.

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