ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S. 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.
Though submarine leaders were early adopters of UUV systems a decade ago, challenges — particularly the difficulty recovering unmanned vehicles back into submarines — have led to UUVs being more commonly associated with surface ship operations.
Now, as the Navy seeks to become a manned/unmanned hybrid fleet, submariners are looking to two key milestones: delivery of an Orca Extra Large UUV test vehicle, and the completion of modifications that will allow the Razorback Medium UUV to be deployed and recovered from a submarine’s torpedo tube.
“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 Adm. 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.
As for the Razorback, the first iteration of the MUUV can only be launched and recovered from a dry deck shelter — a manpower-intensive attachment to an attack submarine the Navy has in limited quantity.
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 Adm. 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.
The Navy identified the XLUUV concept as the solution in 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office report, and selected Boeing for the program in 2019. Boeing “originally planned to deliver the first vehicle by December 2020 and all five vehicles by the end of calendar year 2022,” according to the GAO report.
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 told Defense News “the Orca program is a development program involving groundbreaking technology.”
“There is no other commercially available XLUUV anywhere,” the spokesperson added. “Supply chain challenges combined with high quality requirements have affected timeline and schedule. The Navy has been informed and involved in the entire development program, including the analysis and thought process behind any delays.”
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.
The test asset will reduce risk on the following five Orca prototypes, the last of which GAO says will now deliver in mid-2024.
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.
Razorback and Viperfish MUUV
Two separate communities previously developed a medium-sized UUV: the submarine community’s Razorback, which proved to be less useful than anticipated due it being recoverable only with a dry deck shelter, and the explosive ordnance disposal community’s Mk 18 Mod 2 Kingfish, which EOD units have used in worldwide operations since it was first deployed to the Middle East in 2013.
Both systems now need to be updated, leading to a chance for two program offices to collaborate on a single MUUV design that can conduct two distinct missions.
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.
For the EOD community, this new UUV will be able to operate in deeper waters and conduct longer-duration missions, meaning expeditionary mine countermeasures companies will be able to cover more ocean area faster.
For submariners, the ability to launch and recover from torpedo tubes is a gamechanger. Houston, the commander of the submarine force, called this launch and recovery capability “our biggest focus.”
Final demonstrations are coming up, he said, and “we think we will have something operational in the not-too-distant future.”
Rear Adm. Doug Perry, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare on the chief of naval operations’ staff, said at the conference the attack submarine fleet has 200 torpedo tubes, and this development ensures every single one can be used to launch and recover MUUVs if needed.
Indeed, he said, it gives every attack submarine the ability to have an advanced scout, to touch the seafloor, to conduct third-party targeting, and to aid in communications and the development of a near-real-time common operating picture — a challenge due to both the physics of being underwater and the submarines not wanting to give away their location.
Mine and mine countermeasures UUVs
Meanwhile, the Navy has a number of programs in the works for small mine warfare and mine countermeasures UUVs.
The Lionfish program will replace the Mk 18 Mod 1 Swordfish UUV the EOD community has used for more than 20 years. Moton said HII was selected to replace the Swordfish following a novel process that paired the Defense Innovation Unit with fleet EOD units for a rigorous assessment of competing UUVs. Moton said he liked the way the process played out and hopes to replicate it for other upcoming unmanned programs.
The Navy is working on the next iteration of its Barracuda mine neutralizer, developed as part of the Littoral Combat Ship mission modules program. Raytheon Technologies’ original Barracuda included a tethered neutralizer connected to a communications system that remained at the surface of the water. Moton said the updated Barracuda will not be tethered, “making it, really, a mine-identifying and -neutralizing UUV.”
For offensive mining, Moton said the Navy is nearing the start of acquisition for a Medusa UUV, a system Perry called “a mined, expendable, unmanned submarine asset as a replacement for the submarine-launched mobile mine.”
He said the Navy heard industry responses to a request for information in late October, which the program office is evaluating to understand the potential costs and schedules associated with the service’s requirements for Medusa.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.