The Navy’s ‘Ghost Fleet’ of Robo-Subs Will Drop Deadly Surprises for Enemies

Date:6 June 2022 Author: Juandre

The five new Orca subs will carry anti-ship mines like the new Hammerhead and other covert payloads.

The U.S. Navy will use its new flotilla of uncrewed submarines as little robotic troublemakers, giving enemy fleets a collective headache in the early hours of a conflict.

The Orca-class extra-large unmanned undersea vehicles (XLUUVs) will feature a large payload bay that can carry and dispense mines and other payloads, freeing up regular attack submarines to concentrate on engaging the enemy directly. The Navy could also send Orcas on more hazardous missions the service might be reluctant to send a submarine to with a human crew. The first Orca (pictured at the top of this story) was christened on April 28, 2022, in Huntington Beach, California. It will begin in-water testing this summer.

Capt. Scot Searles, program manager for the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Maritime Systems program office, announced the new unmanned subs in late May at the 15th International Mine Technology Symposium of the Mine Warfare Association. The Orcas, which feature a 34-foot-long payload bay, will be used to deliver mines on the undersea battlefield, as well as other unspecified payloads.

The U.S. Navy has five Orcas on order, with four of the uncrewed subs meant to be operational, and the fifth serving as a test-bed vehicle. Each Orca is a small diesel electric submarine, making the XLUUVs the first non-nuclear powered submarines that they Navy has purchased in more than 60 years. The Orcas lack a sail, giving them more of a torpedo-like appearance, but can raise a sensor and communications mast from a position flush with the hull. The Orcas weigh 80 tons each. The Navy has not disclosed other information about the sensor packages, top speed, range, and other factors.

210722 n aa999 001 keyport, wash july 22, 2021   graphic illustration of the orca, an extra large class unmanned undersea vehicle, naval undersea warfare center division keyport was assigned as the in service engineering agent us navy graphicreleased
Orca has a distinctly torpedo-like appearance, mainly from the lack of a traditional submarine sail.
U.S. NAVY

Orca is a larger version of Boeing’s Echo Voyager prototype XLUUV. Echo Voyager weighs 50 tons, has a range of 6,500 miles, a top speed of eight knots, and a maximum diving depth of 11,000 feet. Echo Voyager also featured a 34-foot-long payload bay. Orca is likely faster and built to sail farther than her predecessor.

Right now, the prime candidate for the Orca’s payload bay is the Mk.-67 submarine-launched mobile mine (SLMM). SLMM is based on the Mk.-37 heavyweight torpedo, a 1960s-era guided torpedo. A new submarine-delivered mine, Hammerhead, is based on the Mk.-54 lightweight anti-submarine torpedo and is aimed at interdicting enemy submarines. One option is for the Navy to modify Hammerhead to engage surface ships, with the main advantage that an Orca could carry many more of the smaller, more modern Hammerheads than the larger, obsolete SLMM. There might also be a classified program that is developing a larger, direct replacement for the SLMM.

The Orca XLUUVs are autonomous, with individual drones capable of traveling to set locations on their own. Once there, Orcas can raise their masts, get updated orders from the Navy, and then proceed with the mission. A mission might be, for example, to lay a minefield in the path of a Chinese invasion force threatening Taiwan. There are only a handful of likely landing beaches if China decides to invade, and seeding the waters in front of them would make for a nasty surprise.

orca
The first Orca in the water, April, 2022.
U.S. NAVY

The ability to send an uncrewed submarine to lay a minefield would allow the Navy to be more daring with its mine-placement strategy. A small, hard-to-detect drone like Orca could take greater risks dodging enemy anti-submarine forces, placing mines closer to enemy territory. Orcas could seed the Miyako Strait in the East China Sea with mines, a favorite path for Chinese Navy aircraft carriers and other surface ships. Orcas could slip in closer and place mines at the entrance of harbors, bays, and other shelters for enemy forces.

Minelaying would only be one part of a strategy, but the ability to get in closer to shore would add depth to an American wartime strategy. Orcas, along with manned submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisersdestroyersP-8 Poseidon patrol planes, and other U.S. military assets, would relentlessly threaten and harass enemy ships constantly, foiling their plans and narrowing their options until the only real option is not to go to sea in the first place.

the virginia class attack submarine pre commissioning unit mississippi ssn 782 conducts alpha trials in the atlantic ocean us navy photo courtesy of general dynamics electric boat
The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Mississippi, 2012. Orca will allow the Navy’s crewed hunter-killers to concentrate their attention on enemy fleets.
U.S. NAVY PHOTO COURTESY OF GENERAL DYNAMICS ELECTRIC BOAT/RELEASED

Handing off the minelaying mission to drones will also help the Navy’s 53 attack submarines concentrate on other missions, chiefly stalking and sinking enemy ships. SLMM drones are carried in a submarine’s torpedo bay and ejected through the torpedo tube. The Virginia-class attack submarines have room for only 25 torpedoes, Sub-Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles, and mines. Freed of the mine mission, the Virginias can concentrate their payloads on torpedoes and missiles.

Building large numbers of drones, both above and under the surface of the ocean, is the only way the Navy will be able to boost the size of the fleet by any meaningful degree. Cheaper but still vastly capable, the “Ghost Fleet” will augment crewed surface ships to give them more firepower, greater sensor range, and more options overall. But don’t expect the “ghosts” to make human crews vanish yet—the Navy still needs humans to make all the decisions.

 

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