The U.S. Navy’s giant underwater “Orca” drone is running many years behind

Tony Capaccio and Julie Johnson

(Bloomberg) — Boeing plans to deliver Orca, an underwater drone of the same size as a subway car, intended to lay U.S. Navy mines and perform other missions three years later than planned. is.

As the Navy is working to incorporate pilotless vessels into future fleets, the budget document is “due to contractor challenges and supplier issues”, five aircraft in September 2023 instead of December 2020. Indicates that the first operational Orca drone may be delivered.

Boeing defeated aerospace rival Lockheed Martin in a February 2019 project. Boeing’s $ 274 million fixed-price contract needs to absorb overruns above a certain threshold.

“The Navy is working with Boeing to reduce schedule delays and reduce risk,” the service said, paying for the prototypes used for testing and training. The test drone was named on April 28th and started its first underwater test.

Boeing’s ability to complete work on Pentagon contracts on time and meet promised specifications is more than $ 1.3 billion in the first quarter against cost overruns for fixed-price defense contracts, including new tanker refueling, KC- Has been scrutinized after recording the costs of-46 tanker programs and the Navy’s MQ-25 tanker drone.

Boeing has continued to invest in futuristic unmanned technologies in the air and sea to address the delays and quality degradations of traditional aircraft programs such as the 777X jet airliner, which is five years behind market entry to 2025. I did.

“Development work involves uncertainty and volatility in estimating the cost and time required to develop new advanced technologies,” Boeing said in a statement on the 70-ton Orca delay. “We also experienced Covid-related impacts during the launch of the new industrial infrastructure and supply chain needed to enter system production,” so “delivery of the first operational vehicle scheduled for the end of 2020 was delayed. I did. ”

Asked if Boeing expects to be in charge of Orca, the company said, “As always, we assess the financial position of all programs during the normal quarterly closing process.”

Boeing has been enthusiastic about launching a new industrial base and supply chain for titanium composites, pressure vessel manufacturing with efficient production rates and “batteries needed to get into production” with the Orca system. “The Navy Navy Systems Command said in a statement.

The command did not address why these production challenges were unexpected before the Boeing award to Lockheed. It also does not mention the increased costs caused by delays or production problems.

The giant underwater drone, manufactured by Boeing in collaboration with shipbuilding company Huntington Ingalls Industries, is Boeing’s decades of state-of-the-art research on manned and unmanned submarines and a defense program acquired from Rockwell International in 1996. It is based on.

Orca is based on Boeing’s 50 tonnes of Echo Voyager. This is an experimental drone designed to cruise underwater for months at a depth of 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) for submarines, mine sweeps, and other missions.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at AeroDynamic Advisory, said: “If they can’t do that either, that’s a problem.

Drone ambition

Orca was an unmanned underwater surface vessel that Navy officials had developed in the last years of the Trump administration to increase the total inventory of services from the current 298 deployable vessels to 355 by 2030. It is the largest of several classes in. We have not approved the number of playing cards and have not proposed new goals. However, as outlined in the March 2021 framework, the Navy continues to find value in unmanned vessels. The shipbuilding plan for this service has budgeted more than $ 4 billion by 2027 with a pilotless system.

Orca’s technical issues are likely to be repeated as services pursue unmanned systems, said Shelby Oakley, acquisition director of the Government Accountability Office, who is following the issue. “The Navy is in the early stages of unmanned spacecraft development and, like all new technological efforts, can face some challenges,” she said.

“The Navy can improve development by changing its management approach and better planning strategies for migrating prototyping efforts,” she said. “We are currently considering the challenges facing the Orca program and will report on the Navy’s course this summer.”

Lauren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, said, “We hope that Orca will eventually be able to carry out minelaying, minelayering, intelligence gathering, anti-submarine operations, and electronic warfare missions.” It could even be possible to carry out strike operations against ground targets. By sea and land.

“Orca could be at the forefront of a revolution in the ocean,” said Thompson, whose think tanks are contributed by Boeing.

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