The U.S. Navy’s plan to build giant robot subs has problems.
The program is suffering from cost overruns and construction delays – and from the Navy’s failure to exercise proper oversight, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. With unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) likely to be a key part of future naval warfare, these setbacks could jeopardize future U.S. naval operations in areas such as the South China Sea.
The $600 million Extra Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV) project aims to create robot submarines that can perform the hazardous task of laying mines or dropping underwater sensors – and do so autonomously on missions that could last months at sea.
However, “the XLUUV effort is at least $242 million or 64 percent over its original cost estimate and at least 3 years late,” GAO found.
“The contractor originally planned to deliver the first vehicle by December 2020 and all five vehicles by the end of calendar year 2022. The Navy and the contractor are in the process of revising the delivery dates. But both expect the contractor to complete and deliver all five vehicles between February and June 2024.”
The project dates back to 2015 when the Navy identified minelaying – which along with minesweeping, has languished for years – as a key priority. In 2017, the Navy awarded contracts to Boeing and Lockheed Martin to develop competing designs for five prototypes. Boeing ultimately won in 2019, with the XLUUV – designated the Orca – based on Boeing’s Echo Voyager design.
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The 85-foot-long Orca, which includes a 51-foot main section and a 34-foot payload module, is powered by diesel generators for sailing on the surface and lithium batteries for sailing underwater, similar to conventionally-powered manned submarines.
But the Navy didn’t conduct proper due diligence, including verifying whether Boeing could actually build the subs.
“These cost overruns and schedule delays are attributable, in part, to the Navy’s decision to not require the contractor to demonstrate its readiness to fabricate the prototype XLUUVs, as called for by leading acquisition practices,” GAO said. For example, the XLUUV and Echo Voyager are similar but not identical designs: The XLUUV requires a different battery, hull materials, payload module, and even being raised and lowered from the water by a crane, rather than an elevator.
Some of the problems may have been unavoidable. As with much recent military and commercial manufacturing, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains. Boeing also submitted more than 1,500 requests to change the design, but unmanned ships are relatively new, so the Navy doesn’t have much data for deciding whether to approve them.
But since the Navy intends to use the Orcas not just as test vehicles, but also as fleet units for real missions, the Navy should have verified that the subs could be delivered on time for what was deemed to be an urgent need, according to GAO.
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Nor did the Navy properly estimate costs.
“Even though it has invested over $600 million in the XLUUV, the Navy did not develop a reliable cost estimate with enough detail to guide its investment in the first five XLUUVs. Without a reliable estimate, the Navy could not be reasonably certain that the contractor could deliver the five vehicles within the two-year timeframe,” GAO said.
These problems may crop up again. “The Navy developed a rough order magnitude cost estimate in December 2020 for the purchase of up to 15 additional XLUUVs,” GAO noted. “Senior Navy officials told us that they have not updated this estimate based on the actual cost data from the fabrication of the five prototype XLUUVs.”
Meanwhile, another Navy large robot submarine program, the Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, has also suffered so many cost overruns and delays that the project is being canceled. Nonetheless, these should only be seen as bumps on the road to a future where robots perform many dangerous but dreary missions, such as long-duration minelaying or minesweeping missions.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Sandboxx and Forbes. He can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Feature Image: Boeing’s Echo Voyager (Boeing)
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