The Navy has been using submarines to fight naval battles for over a hundred years now. These submarines are some of the world’s most advanced pieces of technology, and the Navy is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve them. Recently, the Navy unveiled its latest submarine: the Orca. This autonomous submarine is the future of naval warfare, and it will change how we fight battles at sea. But the question is, is this a feasible technology, or is the Navy wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on this project?
ORCA: The “Future of Naval Warfare”
The Orca is the largest Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) that the Navy has ever built, and it is packed with features that make it the perfect submarine for naval warfare. It is autonomous, meaning that it does not need a crew to operate it. This allows the Orca to be smaller and more maneuverable than traditional submarines. It is also equipped with state-of-the-art sensors and cameras that will enable it to gather intelligence and information about the enemy. The Orca can stay underwater for long periods of time, and it is designed to operate in all kinds of environments, including the Arctic and the deep ocean.
The Orca is the perfect submarine for the Navy’s future needs. It is smaller, faster, and more agile than traditional submarines. It can stay underwater for extended periods of time, and it has the ability to gather intelligence on the enemy. The Orca is the supposed future of naval warfare and will change how we fight battles at sea, especially in the Pacific, according to Forbes.
The history of the Orca project stretches back to 2007, when the Navy issued a request for proposals for a new, low-cost mine layer. Boeing responded with a design for the Orca, a small sea vessel that could be operated remotely from a distance. The Navy was impressed with Boeing’s design and awarded them the contract in 2009.
However, once work on the Orca began, it became clear that Boeing lacked the necessary expertise to build a remotely operated vessel. The company had never built anything like the Orca before, and they soon ran into hull design, engineering, and software development problems. As a result, the project quickly fell behind schedule and exceeded budget.
Boeing’s False Promise and the Navy’s Incompetence
According to congressional auditors, the US Navy’s Orca drone is running at least three years late and 64% over original cost estimates because the service failed to determine that aerospace giant Boeing Co. had the skills needed to build the seagoing vessel.
The report, released by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), said that the Navy’s failure to properly assess Boeing’s capabilities led to several design and construction problems with the Orca, which is meant to be a vital part of the service’s plans to build a new class of seagoing minesweepers.
Boeing was originally tapped to build 10 Orcas in 2013, but the program has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The first Orca isn’t scheduled to be delivered until 2020, four years later than planned, and the program’s total cost has ballooned from $343 million to $564 million.
“These cost overruns and schedule delays are attributable, in part, to the Navy’s decision to not require the contractor to demonstrate its readiness to fabricate the prototype, as called for by leading acquisition practices,” the Government Accountability Office said in a report.
The GAO said that many of the problems with the program stemmed from Boeing’s lack of experience in building unmanned vessels that could operate for long periods of time in open water. The company had built smaller drones for use on land and in confined waters such as rivers and harbors, but it had never attempted to create a drone that could travel long distances and operate in difficult sea conditions.
“The contractor did not demonstrate its readiness to fabricate XLUUV because it was not required to do so. For acquisition programs, DOD and Navy typically conduct a production readiness review. While XLUUV is a prototype and not an acquisition program, the Navy plans to field the vehicles quickly. Key differences between the XLUUV and the contractor’s prototype, the Echo Voyager, required the contractor to redesign critical components. Rather than address issues before starting fabrication, the contractor did not identify the full impact of these issues until after fabrication began. Then, significant delays were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the Navy has begun assessing the possibility of adding more capability and vehicles to this effort. If the Navy forgoes a production readiness review for its next XLUUV purchase, it risks beginning fabrication without information to assess the contractor’s cost, schedule, and performance targets.
As a result, the GAO said, the Navy ended up having to spend millions of dollars extra on design changes and construction delays. For example, the Navy had to redesign the Orca’s hull form “to make it more stable in high seas and reduce vibrations that were causing equipment failures.”
The report said that the Navy should have taken into account Boeing’s lack of experience when it awarded the contract, and it recommended that the service develop more rigorous requirements for future contracts with large defense contractors.
The US Navy’s Orca drone is running three years late and over budget due to a lack of appropriate skill assessment on the part of the Navy. This failure has resulted in an ineffective and costly project, as the Orca was meant to be a low-cost mine-laying vessel.
“The Navy determined that XLUUV was critical to fulfilling an emergent need, which, under DOD policy, generally requires a capability be provided within 2 years. However, the Navy did not develop a sound business case, including cost and schedule estimates, to ensure that it could deliver the vehicles quickly to the fleet because XLUUV is a research and development effort. According to DOD urgent capability acquisition best practices, an acquiring organization should make cost and schedule trade-off decisions to get solutions to the fleet faster. Without more complete cost and schedule estimates, the Navy does not have the information it needs for decision-making and, thus, could continue experiencing cost overruns and schedule delays as it builds the XLUUV,” GAO wrote in their report.
This fiasco calls into question the competence of the US Navy in predicting contractor capabilities. Furthermore, it is clear that the Navy did not do enough research into Boeing’s abilities before awarding them the contract for the Orca drone. As a result, taxpayers have been burdened with an expensive and ineffective project.
Frederick Stefany, a deputy assistant Navy secretary, said in brief remarks in the report that “based on performance to date, the Navy is collecting all cost, schedule and capability data to inform our assessment of contractor-proposed cost and schedules going forward and to inform consideration of potential trade-offs.”
The drone has yet to enter active duty, and it is unclear if it ever will.