Ross Wilkers

UNMANNED

Boeing clinches Navy unmanned submarine program

The Navy has finalized Boeing as the winner of the competition to build a large unmanned underwater vehicle with a new $46.7 million contract modification for another prototype unit.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin were pitted in a head-to-head contest since September 2017 for the Navy’s “Orca” Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, which the branch essentially envisions as an unmanned submarine.

Last month, Boeing was awarded a $43 million modification for four prototype Orca vehicles but Lockheed had not received a similar award at the time. As restated in its Wednesday awards digest like in February, the Navy did not disclose more details at the time because the program was still in source selection mode.

A Navy spokesman’s emailed statement to WT at the time left open the possibility of a new contract for Lockheed. This latest modification is for the fifth Orca to complete the source selection process and brings Boeing’s total contract awards for Orca prototypes and related support units to $274.4 million.

I have reached out to Boeing for additional comment on the new award and will update this post when I hear back.

While not seemingly as large as other big-ticket defense programs, Orca stands to give Boeing an initial foothold in an unmanned underwater domain analysts see as only growing. The Navy also is eyeing unmanned platforms as part of its plan to get to a 355-ship fleet.

The win of Orca helps advance Boeing’s broader strategy to be a market leader in autonomous systems beyond just the unmanned physical platform itself to the underlying supporting software and other elements that facilitate autonomy.

As part of our 2017 WT Top 100 series, I spoke with Boeing’s then-autonomous business lead Chris Raymond about his company’s approach to that market and what it had in store for the Orca program.

Boeing will build its Echo Voyager vehicle for the program that sought an underwater drone that can travel to a location, loiter, deploy payloads and return to its home base.

Echo Voyager is 55 feet long and was built to not only be fully autonomous, but also not require a support vessel for launch or recovery. As Raymond indicated to me in that interview, the idea was to make the unmanned platform be complementary to manned platforms.

“The vision was initiated around the idea of more efficient operations in dull-and-dirty missions that wouldn’t be done by a manned vehicle in the future,” Raymond said in that Top 100 interview. “In most cases, those things were always dependent on a host ship that took them out, delivered them and recovered them.

“One of the things we saw was that eventually you would want a host ship-independent kind of platform. Some of these security operations may have mission needs where that platform with a flexible payload bay could be a good solution.”

Boeing's defense business chief Leanne Caret was succinct at a June 2017 Defense One event about what Echo Voyager means in company's push to be a leader in the unmanned underwater domain.

“You’ll think of subs when you think of us."

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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