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Though autonomous systems promise to bring to the undersea domain the kind of new capabilities and offensive punch that the aerial drone has brought to land warfare, the US Navy has yet to fully tap their potential. 

The US Navy needs offensive undersea drones. Today’s unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) are generally used for mine countermeasure operations, ISR operations, and for conducting oceanographic surveys. Naval mines, meanwhile, have progressed little since the 1970s introduced the Mk 60 encapsulated torpedo and the Mk 67 Submarine Launched Mobile Mine, although recent years have brought efforts to more accurately employ immobile mines, develop sensor packages to better discriminate targets, and even develop “smart mines” such as the Hammerhead. 

According to defenseone.com, the notional UUV would combine some of the advantages and capabilities of a fast-attack submarine (stealthy, mobile, sensor-driven pursuit of targets, ability to follow or discriminately strike at will) and those of a sea mine (even stealthier, far cheaper, present physical and psychological barriers to an adversary) — without some of the drawbacks (submarines are really expensive, and sea mines are mostly indiscriminate, counter the notion of freedom of navigation, and are really difficult to clean up once the mission has concluded). 

At the beginning of the year, the U.S. Navy awarded a contract to Boeing for four Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (XLUUVs). The unmanned submarines, called Orcas, will be able to undertake missions from scouting to sinking ships at very long ranges. Drone ships like the Orca will revolutionize war at sea, providing inexpensive, semi-disposable weapon systems that can fill the gaps in the front line — or simply go where it’s too dangerous for manned ships to go, according to popularmechanics.com.

The Orca is based on the Echo Voyager technology demonstration sub. That boat is an unmanned diesel electric submarine launched and recovered from a pier.