US Navy’s underwater drone Orca will play offensive role

The U.S. Navy’s Boeing Orca underwater drone could play an offensive role in future conflicts. Writing in the highly regarded U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) blog, retired Commander Brian Dulla argues that the U.S. Navy should invest in mine laying capabilities. It’s an arena where large drones like the Orca could have advantages.

Mine warfare feels neglected in the popular defense media. It may be perceived as old-fashioned or uninteresting. The reality can be quite different. Put yourself in the mind of a captain whose ship has just strayed into a minefield. Or the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) diver sent to defuse the mines. Even low tech or vintage mines pose a very real threat to modern navies.

Commander Dulla’s mine proposal is innovative. Yet like many good ideas it will seem obvious when you read it. He proposes to combines the range, autonomy and flexibility of a UUV (unmanned underwater vehicle) with the warhead of a mine. This allows it to be used as a moored mine that can propel itself into position, keeping the launch platform far from harms way. It could also be used as an extra slow torpedo to target ships in harbor. Because of its combined features Dulla terms this concept the ‘moor-pedo.’

At the same time, underwater drones are a hot topic for the Navy. It’s a natural pairing because mine laying is dangerous to perform, especially in the enemy’s back yard. Aircraft, ships or submarines are put in harm’s way and distracted from their primary purposes. Crewless platforms mitigate some of the inherent risks involved.

Although unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have become a common sight on the battlefield, development has been slower in the undersea domain. And until now the majority of UUVs used by navies have been very small. To lay a minefield a UUV would have to be much larger, large enough to carry a useful number of mines.

Not surprisingly the U.S. is the first sea power to start building extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles (XLUUVs). But other navies are also entering the arena, including Britain and Japan. And China, Russia, and South Korea also have large UUV projects.

Orca has a range of 6,500 nautical miles and can run completely alone for months at a time. It measures 85 by 8.5 by 8.5 feet and has a weight “in the air” of 50 tons.

The sub features an inertial navigation system, depth sensors, and can surface to get a fix on its position via GPS. It uses satellite communications to “phone home” and report information or receive new orders. The Orca can dive to a maximum depth of 11,000 feet and has a top speed of eight knots.

The unmanned sub has an internal cargo volume of 2,000 cubic feet with a maximum length of 34 feet and a capacity of eight tons. It can also support external payloads hanging off the hull.

The U.S. Naval Institute News says the Orca will be capable of, “mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions.” Orca could carry sonar payloads, sniffing out enemy submarines and then sending location data to friendly helicopters and surface ships.

Orca could even pack a Mk. 46 lightweight torpedo to take a shot at an enemy sub itself. It could also carry heavier Mk. 48 heavyweight torpedoes to attack surface ships, or even conceivably anti-ship missiles. Orca could drop off cargos on the seabed, detect, or even lay mines. The modular hardware payload system and open architecture software ensures Orca could be rapidly configured based on need.

It has a flexible payload section which is large enough to carry multiple torpedo sized payloads. Initially these could be smaller UUVs. In the future they could be Tomahawk cruise missiles, or as the USNI article implies, mines.

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