(Graphic by Lockheed)

The orca, also called the killer whale, is a large deadly marine mammal that hunts for prey. Whales can hold their breath underwater for over an hour – and since killer whales can swim as fast as 30 knots, they can go a long way in a stealthy fashion before they turn up somewhere, catching their prey by surprise.

In one sense, it is appropriate to name the Navy's plan for a new long-range extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle (XLUUV) after the orca. After all, it is intended to stay underwater for a long period of time and cover a fair bit of distance.


However, information obtained at the 2018 SeaAirSpace expo at National Harbor, Maryland indicates that this Orca is more like a utility player on a major-league baseball team's bench than a cold-blooded killer.

The Marlin unmanned underwater vehicle is ten feet long, has 18 hours of endurance, and can go at a top speed of four knots.

(Photo by Lockheed)

The Orca is intended to handle a variety of "multiple critical missions," while leveraging existing technology. It will provide range and persistence, while operating autonomously. Lockheed's website notes that among the missions it could carry out are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (in essence, acting as a scout in areas a full-sized submarine cannot go, and which you don't care if it doesn't come back), mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare training (when you don't have a sub around), and "indication and warning notification" (in essence, acting as an underwater picket that you don't care about not picking up).

The Orca will also be a modular system, so that future missions can be added to the platform. This means we will likely see the system around for a long time. The impression shows that it bears a strong resemblance to a Mk 48 torpedo. This would allow it to be launched from the torpedo tubes of American subs.

Orca could fill the gap caused by the early retirement of some Los Angeles-class submarines like USS Baltimore (SSN 704).

(U.S. Navy photo)

The Navy considers Orca to be a "Joint Emerging Operational Need." It's not hard to understand why. Thirty years ago, the Navy had 100 attack submarines. In September 2016, that number had fallen to 52. Many subs that were considered top of the line in the 1980s, like early Los Angeles-class attack subs, were retired instead of being re-fitted.

Thus, the Orca may help fill the gap to an extent. But maybe it would be better to get more subs, as well.