KEY POINTS

  • The U.S. Navy already has autonomous submarines
  • Boeing has been developing a new autonomous sub called the Orca
  • Each sub can carry up to 12 munitions in tubes
  • The subs will be crewless and reliant on AI 

Defense giant Boeing has been developing the Orca autonomous submarines for the U.S. Navy purposes for quite some time now. These are projected as soon-to-be replacements for the current autonomous submarines used by the Navy.

These submarines are being designed to handle automated tasks and free up sailors.  

The Navy has been relatively secretive about the CLAWS program, including its actual purpose and its budget. On paper, it was allocated $26 million in 2020 and an additional $23 million next year. That sounds like a relatively small budget for a defense department project of this nature. But there are other discrepancies; very little is known about the program, including what its acronym means. 

Here is what we do know: According to a report by The Daily Mail, the subs may be outfitted with up to 12 torpedoes or other munitions. In essence, this means that these fully autonomous craft may have the power to kill indiscriminately. This presents a considerable problem on so many levels. Apart from the obvious ethical question of allowing a machine to kill without human control, there is the big question over unwanted and rapid escalation arising out of such machines acting on their own. 

deep-sea-sub Nereus, a deep sea exploration sub that was lost at sea. Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Still, the United States is not alone in this quest as China is expected to have similar technology deployed around the world by the end of 2020. The difficulty for the U.S. is that they may end up being two years behind the Chinese, and perhaps Russia, as they are not expected to have the technology readily available until 2022. According to the report, for the Chinese craft, any kill orders would have to be authorized by a commanding officer. 

Speaking under condition of anonymity, a source close to the program told the International Business Times that the program runs much deeper than what appears on the surface. "Like it or not, this is going to be the future of maritime warfare, and it is better for America to be ahead of the game instead of behind the eight-ball." 

It seems highly doubtful that robotic subs would be roaming the oceans with the ability to take human life with no actual hands on the controls, but the reality is quite clear. The technology is there, and people are going to use it. A report by New Scientist seems to corroborate the original report emphasizing that the U.S. Navy is hoping for the program to have maximum effect and essentially be able to carry out the orders it is programmed for.