NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Huntington Ingalls Industries builds ships for sailors, but for the last two years it has supported a newer naval trend: the rise of the robots.
The nation's largest military shipbuilder is helping aerospace giant Boeing build the Orca, a large unmanned submarine. Just as flying drones changed the nature of air warfare, autonomous subs are allowing the Navy to rethink battle beneath the sea, analysts say.
The partnership between these two defense titans isn't new, but it's taken off in 2019.
Two years ago, the Navy selected two competitors for initial design of the Orca: the Boeing-HII team and Lockheed Martin, awarding each about $40 million. In March, the Navy formally ended the competition, awarding additional money to Boeing to build, test and deliver five Orca submersibles.
The effort links Boeing and HII's Technical Solutions division — not the Newport News shipyard, which builds nuclear-powered submarines.
HII's responsibilities include fabricating and assembling hull structures and looking at safety and reliability issues, said Dan Tubbs, Boeing's deputy director of advanced maritime systems.
Some of the work will take place in Panama City, Fla., where an HII-Technical Solutions facility has developed a smaller submersible called Proteus, which runs in manned and unmanned modes.
Separate from the recent contract award, the Navy’s proposed 2020 budget shows a significant commitment toward unmanned systems, including submersibles. The service is asking Congress for $359 million toward UUVs, or unmanned underwater vehicles.
That includes $182 million for the development, fabrication and testing of Orca, according to budget documents.
Wall Street analysts picked up on the issue during HII's first-quarter earnings call. President and CEO Mike Petters said growth in unmanned submersibles hasn't yet taken off like unmanned aircraft, but the company wanted to accumulate experience before that happened.
It has paid off.
"We made an investment in Proteus, which is either a manned or unmanned vessel that we run out of Panama City to learn about the space," he said. "And one thing led to another and Boeing turned to us and said, 'Can you help us manufacture a product?'"
He added: "If we're not moving toward an unmanned future, we're going to miss an opportunity here ..."
Boeing already has built the Echo Voyager, a 51-foot-long, 50-ton autonomous submersible currently on sea trials with more than 2,500 hours of ocean testing. A hybrid battery-diesel system powers the ship. It can stay at sea for months, resurfacing to snorkel depth to take in air to power the diesel engines, which then recharges the batteries.
Orca will be different, Boeing officials say, but lessons learned from Echo Voyager have been incorporated into Orca's design.
Don't expect autonomous submarines to prowl the seas looking to attack enemies, at least not any time soon, two naval analysts said.
Initially, Orca will be used for tasks such as delivering payloads, laying mines, mapping the ocean floor or gather surveillance, said Bryan Clark, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former submarine officer.
But doing that drudge work frees up more manned submarines for attack missions, which effectively increases the firepower of the fleet.
"That will take a huge demand off the manned submarine force," Clark said.
Bradley Martin, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and a retired Navy captain, does not expect Orca to replace conventional submarines with crews. He sees the two as complementary.
"It will be an addition rather than a substitute," he said.
Clark agreed. An unmanned sub could operate as a "wing man" for a Virginia-class submarine, handling surveillance or carrying additional weapons and supplies.
The close-knit community of submariners can't wait to see them in the water.
"They're very eager to get them out there," Clark said, "because they want to get the benefit of having them taking over some of the missions."
Challenges await if UUVs are called upon to do more advanced missions, because moving through the sea isn't the same as flying through the air.
Unmanned aircraft can be remotely piloted. Even if drones fly a pre-programmed mission, a human can monitor the flight.
With an undersea drone, "you don't have real-time communication to see what it sees," Clark said. "And it's not even seeing that well. Its only sensor is sonar. That's not a perfect sensor."
Using the Orca as an attack drone would require a significant upgrade in sensors so it can see or hear what's around it and understand targets.
"You've got to be willing to spend the kind of money to put those sensors and that automated target processing onto (the Orca), which would make it a much more expensive platform," Clark said.
That prompts the question: Is the Navy better off using manned subs for attack missions instead of a souped-up drone?
Still, expect the Orca to refine naval tactics, said Martin. And for the moment at least, the United States is in a good position relative to other countries.
“This is one place where the Navy has understood the potential and the opportunity,” he said, “and has taken advantage of it.”