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Stop me if you heard this one before: A new Navy vessel designed to do great and wonderful things is now an over-budget and behind-schedule boondoggle that is posing more headaches for the U.S. military than it ever will for the Chinese navy.

The Navy’s Orca submarine program is the latest example of the Navy’s shipbuilding woes. The 85-foot-long, 80-ton unmanned submarines are supposed to lay Hammerhead mines on the ocean floor, which wait for enemy submarines to pass by before firing a torpedo at the aquatic adversary.

In February and March 2019, the Navy awarded contracts to Boeing for five Orca submarines, the first of which was supposed to be delivered by December 2020 followed by the remaining four by the end of this year. Originally planned to cost $379 million, the first five Orca submarines are now expected to come in at $621 million, an increase of $242 million, or roughly 64%, a recent Government Accountability Office report found. The five Orca subs are currently expected to be delivered between February and June 2024.

For the Navy, the story of the Orca submarine is another case of Déjà vu all over again. Just like the Zumwalt-class destroyers, the USS Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers, and the much-derided Littoral Combat Ships, the Navy has yet again leapt without looking with new technologies.

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A major reason why the Orca submarine program has run into these problems is because — wait for it — the Navy did not make sure that Boeing could actually build the damn things before awarding the company a contract to do so, according to the GAO report.

“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 [Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles], as called for by leading acquisition practices,” the report found. 

Orca submarine is yet another case of the Navy spending money like a drunken sailor
Boeing developed Echo Voyager and other autonomous and large unmanned submarines as test beds for the Orca submarine. (Boeing)

The Navy was able to go into production without looking into whether Boeing could build the five Orcas in the specified time frame by designating the Orca program as a research project, national security analyst Mark Thompson explained.

“It’s pitch-perfect Pentagon: We need something so badly we don’t have time to figure out if it works before we build it,” Thompson wrote in the Oct. 5 edition of “The Bunker,” a newsletter from the Project On Government Oversight. “You know, like the F-35.” 

The Navy did not provide a comment for this story.

Boeing spokeswoman Mary Ann Brett described the Orca submarine as “a first-of-type capability.”

“We’re solving hard technology challenges to build something that operates in a hostile environment with a level of endurance and autonomy that has never before existed anywhere in the world,” Brett told Task & Purpose. “We are working with the U.S. Navy to deliver on the demanding requirements and develop technology beyond what is commercially available for these types of XLUUVs.”

Orca submarines are meant to deploy to areas that are too shallow or well defended to send manned submarines, said Bradley Martin, a retired Navy captain and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Orca submarine
Artist depiction of the Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle. (Boeing)

The unmanned submarines would also take some of the pressure off the manned submarine force, which are currently tasked with carrying out a variety of different missions, Martin told Task & Purpose.

“The need for it is there,” Martin said. “It can do surveillance. It can do mining. It’s both useful in a peacetime and a wartime setting. It’s one of these things where we really ought to have it and it looks like it’s not going to be that difficult to provide it.”

Yet the process of building the Orca has shown that there is a big difference between designing ships and building them. Boeing has asked the Navy to make more than 1,500 revisions to the Orca’s original design, the GAO report found.

“In general, these deviations on any program are cases where the builder comes back and says: Hey, when we’re actually constructing this thing, it makes sense to build it in this way as opposed to the way that you had designed it on paper,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Bryan Clark, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

In the case of the Orca submarine, Boeing designed its prototype for the submarine based on the company’s experiences of building aircraft, and that process often involves using rare materials and hand-built components, Clark told Task & Purpose.

However, the Orca is intended to be used in water, and that requires using different materials and manufacturing methods to mass produce these submarines, he said.

“The aircraft manufacturing design principles don’t necessarily translate very well to shipbuilding,” Clark said. “It’s like something built in a hobby shop and then has to be constructed on an assembly line.”

Orca submarine is yet another case of the Navy spending money like a drunken sailor
The Orca XLUUV Test Asset System prepares for the first in-water test following a christening ceremony April 28, 2022, in Huntington Beach, California. (Boeing)

While Boeing is the prime contractor for the Orca program, Huntington Ingalls Industries — a shipbuilding company — is the subcontractor tasked with assembling the hull structures at its facility in Hampton, Virginia.

“And they’re running into a lot of snags and hiccups as they try to translate this very exquisite aircraft-type of a design of a vehicle into something that’s more like a ship,” Clark said.

A spokesman for Huntington Ingalls industries declined to provide a comment for this story.

The Orca program is emblematic of how the Navy has struggled with shipbuilding since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During most of the Cold War, the Navy focused on making evolutionary advances in ship designs, said retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Steven Wills, a naval strategist and research assistant at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

For example, the Spruance-class destroyers that the Navy introduced in the 1970s had a new propulsion system and hull design, but most of the weapons and sensors were the same as older classes of ships, Wills told Task & Purpose.

Orca submarine is yet another case of the Navy spending money like a drunken sailor
Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Test Vehicle. (U.S. Navy)

This type of gradual improvement in ship designs fit with a philosophy toward new weapons systems established by Robert McNamara, when he served as defense secretary from 1961 to 1968, Wills said. During McNarama’s tenure, the Pentagon established its acquisition system, which requires new technologies to go through rigorous testing, evaluation, and analysis to make sure they fit within the military’s overall needs.

“By introducing only small amounts of new technology, the Navy could successfully navigate the acquisition system, which prescribed lots and lots of testing and analysis and its different wickets that you have to jump through in order to reach full-rate production,” Wills said.

Everything changed after Donald Rumsfeld became defense secretary in 2001 and pushed the military to adopt transformational technologies, Wills said.

Rumsfeld argued that the defense industry could overcome any technological problems that came up along the way, but it proved to be especially hard for shipbuilding companies to perfect radical new designs rather than mass-producing ships, he said.

“Our defense shipbuilders don’t build merchant ships and other things to keep them busy,” Wills said. “So, the defense shipbuilder has to either hang onto those people and pay them a lot of money — and that comes from our taxpayer dollars — or the shipbuilder is going to lay all those people off. So, it becomes very hard for industry to just build a prototype — especially something the size of a ship — and just tinker with it.”

Nevertheless, since the start of the 21st Century, the Navy has ordered ships with lots of completely new systems, Wills said. The USS Gerald R. Ford-class carriers, for example, introduced the electromagnetic launch system (EMALS), which took time to get to work right. The Zumwalt-class destroyers had a completely new hull design and weapons. And the Littoral Combat Ships had new hull forms and the Navy initially attempted a new approach to crewing the ships — which it eventually abandoned.

But despite Rumsfeld’s mandate for transformative technology, the McNamara-era system of testing and evaluation remained, he said. The less mature a new technology is, the more likely that it will fail testing, and that causes delays in the program.

“If you put too many pieces of new technology onto a new ship and if it fails testing — which, in a lot of cases, that happens — it pushes the timeline back and the costs go up, because you have to plot a new timeline, pay workers longer, and it backorders all of your stuff and the rest of your program,” Wills said. “If your schedule keeps getting pushed back, then the cost of your ship keeps going up.”

The Orca shows that the Navy still sees new technologies as a glittering lure and it is relying on the private sector to work out all the bugs that will inevitably come up along the way. If the program becomes another albatross around the Navy’s neck, like the Littoral Combat Ship, Navy leaders will only have themselves to blame.

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