U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin invited the media to attend when he visited the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego on September 28. He wanted the world to know that the U.S. is currently developing weapons that would be able to defend Taiwan even if China’s “carrier killer” ballistic missiles are as effective as China claims they are.
Lloyd was at the warfare center to be briefed on the progress of America’s program to build unmanned submarines and surface ships. One of these projects is the large Orca XLUUV (Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle). Built by Boeing, the first prototype of the Orca was launched on April 28 and it has been providing test data ever since.
The Orca is designed to slip past enemy defenses to attack enemy ships and gather intelligence at a lower cost than conventional submarines. Although its details are top secret, photos from the launch of the test model show that it is just over two meters high and around 20 meters in length. Graphics used by the U.S. Navy to represent the general concept of the XLUUV show that the final version will contain a large weapons bay that will hold four torpedo tubes for attacking enemy targets.
One of the Orca’s initial missions would also be to lay the U.S.’ sophisticated Hammerhead mines that are tethered to the seabed during deployment. Hammerhead mines are designed to listen for the unique sound of enemy submarines and fire torpedoes at such submarines in a time of war.
Analysts believe that China has a comparatively weak capability to detect underwater systems. Currently, it seems that the U.S. still has a big edge when it comes to underwater warfare, and it might be the only field in which it does have a big edge. New robot subs like the Orca are designed to exploit this vulnerability in China’s armor, while also saving costs.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been doing its own research into carrier-based drone airplanes. In December 2018 the U.S.’ Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments published its findings after researching “trends in U.S. strategy, capabilities, and threats between now and 2040 to describe the operational concepts the carrier aircraft will likely need to use in the future, and the implications for how carrier air wings should evolve during the next 20 years.” The center found that the F/A-18 variants that make up the bulk of current U.S. carrier air wings do not have the range and survivability (read “stealth”) that would be required against great powers in the next few decades.
The center urged the U.S. Navy to start replacing the F/A-18 variants with long-range unmanned strike aircraft with stealth capabilities. The advantages of unmanned stealth jets are two-fold: Firstly, computers don’t get tired from flying for hours and hours. Secondly, computers are light and small — and they don’t require a cockpit with a wide view angle, which adds drag and fuel consumption.
The center calculated that emerging anti-ship threats require carrier combat air patrol aircraft to go much further out than ever before — with future air patrols expected to patrol 800 to 1,000 nautical miles from the base carrier. If such patrols were to be attempted by F/A-18 crews, the amount of time to reach the patrol area alone would put massive pressure on the wakefulness of the crew and fuel load of the airplane. For these reasons it is imperative that future carrier air wings have a large number of unmanned and stealthy combat aircraft that can loiter much longer while remaining hidden from enemy detection systems.
Currently, the only unmanned stealth drone that the U.S. Navy is integrating into its carrier operations is the MQ-25 refueling drone. The center believes this drone should be developed into combat variants that can carry the brunt of combat air patrol, anti-submarine warfare and strike missions. The refueling drones would then be able to work with the combat drones to create long-period patrols stretching over multiple days.
So, now that the development of the F-35 program has matured, one of the next big-budget projects for the U.S. defense industry would be to create a version of the MQ-25 that can carry a wide array of weapons and sensors. The trickiest part of developing such an unmanned platform would be to make it capable of landing on a bucking aircraft carrier, every single time — without having to ditch its weapons load. Another major challenge would be to ensure that these unmanned stealth jets can not be hacked and used by the very enemy they are supposed to defend against.