Boeing makes plans to use undersea drones as another growth opportunity

Boeing's defense leader touts its undersea drone partnership with Huntington Ingalls as an example of the airplane maker's portfolio diversity push beyond just fighters.

Boeing’s recently announced underwater drone manufacturing partnership with Huntington Ingalls Industries brings together two of the U.S.’ biggest defense contractors in an emerging market.

But the combination of the world’s largest airplane maker and the U.S’ largest military shipbuilder is more than just about name recognition, Boeing defense segment CEO Leanne Caret told a Defense One-hosted event Wednesday morning in Washington.

“When you form agreements like this it is about working together and if it’s only for the name, you’re really not going to have a good relationship,” Caret said.

Rather, Caret cited “an opportunity for there to be more quantities built” of unmanned undersea vehicles based on conversations with agencies. Boeing currently produces its autonomous Echo Voyager submarine at a “very low rate” and sought manufacturing experience in its search for a partner.

“We wanted to partner with some folks who are experts in mass production in that type of a vehicle,” Caret said.

The Boeing-HII partnership is touting the aerospace giant’s 55-foot Echo Voyager for the Navy’s Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program, or “Orca,” that seeks a UUV that can travel to a location, stay there and deploy payloads before returning back to a home base.

Caret touted Echo Voyager’s design as a self-deployable underwater vehicle at the event and Boeing wants customers to view the company as a key player in that market.

“You’ll think of subs when you think of us,” she said.

Autonomous and other unmanned systems will become a standalone business unit within the $29 billion Boeing defense segment on July 1 as part of a reorganization that also includes a new space and missile systems unit focused on NASA programs and weapons.

That reorganization comes in response to the speed of both technology changes and customer decisions in response, Caret said.

“We’re making decisions based on things we read in the news” on new technology breakthroughs, Caret said. “And it’s really causing us to rethink, ‘How do we go execute the business?’”

Boeing’s longstanding fighter jet business remains a “key part of our core business” even as the company looks to extend its brand as a diverse government contractor, Caret said.

“Without a strong core, you can’t continue to invest and grow,” Caret said. “Our fighter business has always been part of the Boeing bloodline but it’s not our only business.”

Autonomous and space were two priority markets Caret outlined in remarks during Boeing’s May 2016 investor conference nearly three months after she became defense CEO. She also highlighted satellites, rotorcraft, commercial derivatives and services as key focus areas for the Boeing defense business.

At the Defense One event, Caret also shed additional light on the company’s decision to move its defense headquarters from St. Louis to Arlington, Va., near the Pentagon. St. Louis had hosted the defense segment since 1997 upon Boeing’s merger with former rival McDonnell Douglas.

“To listen to customers, you just can’t be available and then fly in and fly back out when it’s convenient for you. You need to be a part of the community and the fabric of the lives that they’re living and actually see, both through our field service reps throughout the world and our production sites, but also the conversations that are going on at the senior levels,” Caret said.

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