Unmanned systems will revolutionize undersea warfare much in the manner that nuclear propulsion did, the Navy’s new nuclear reactors chief said Oct. 21.

“I think we have an imperative, now, to transform undersea warfare by exploiting the use of unmanned vehicles, autonomous assets and the supporting systems,” Adm. Frank Caldwell, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, said at the Naval Submarine Leagues’ annual symposium outside Washington, D.C. “It’s the right path and I think it’s a path that is compelled out of necessity.”

Potential challenges from adversaries in undersea warfare, the hiatus in submarine building taken in the 1990s and an anticipated dip in force structure in the 2020s have all created the requirement for submarines with longer strike ranges and varied mission capabilities, Caldwell said. The possibility of deploying subs to monitor or protect subsurface infrastructure, which is an emerging mission, would require subs to launch and recover submersible unmanned vehicles, he said.

Adm. Frank Caldwell, Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program
Adm. Frank Caldwell, Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program

“When you add all these up, I think there is an imperative for us to move forward more swiftly in this unmanned realm,” he said.

Caldwell said the subsurface Navy’s adoption of unmanned systems is a “fork in the road” where the service must make the decision to pursue game-changing technologies, as it did when it developed nuclear propulsion and launched ballistic missile subs.

The Navy’s “solid narrative” of submarine investment priorities has remained rigid: Ohio-Class replacement, building two Virginia- class subs per year, developing the Virginia payload module and “payload diversity and volume” in that order. Caldwell called for expanding the latter to include unmanned systems and command and control technologies.

One of those programs, which was recently transferred from the Office of Naval Research to the Navy’s Unmanned Warfare Division, is the large diameter unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV). It is basically a huge unmanned sub that will be either tethered or untethered–it has not been settled–-to a mother submarine. Increment one will be used for several missions including subsurface reconnaissance and surveillance while future increments could roll in above-surface reconnaissance and the ability to deploy its own payloads, said Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, director of the Navy’s N99 Unmanned Warfare Division.

Plans are to announce a Milestone B decision for LDUUV in fiscal year 2018. In the meantime, the Navy will continue testing its operational utility. The LDUUV will feature a modular open systems architecture design that will allow for rapid upgrades and the integration of emerging technologies, he said.

The Navy’s only other unmanned systems programs Girrier oversees are the surface Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS), development of a common control system that will be used to operate any unmanned system regardless of where or how it operates and an effort to establish a standard baseline software for autonomous capabilities.

The MQ-4C Triton high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance unmanned aircraft–the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s Global Hawk spy drone–falls under the auspices of Naval Air Systems Command. 

“We know what it takes to go down this fork in the road…if we want a fundamental change in undersea warfare in terms of strategy, operations and tactics, these are the elements I think we need: focused, committed investment; strong, knowledgeable leadership in this area. We need reliable hardware and software systems that sailors can count on when we put these things in the water.”

“We have to have the ability to rapidly learn and innovate in a timely manner,” Caldwell said. “This means we have to get systems in the water soon and in support of this we have to have meaningful modeling, we’ve got to have war gaming and experimentation to allow us to pull this together.”

Caldwell said that while there many potential uses for an unmanned undersea vehicle, many questions remain about how to power and control them. There are many “unknowns” associated with the command and control, integration and production of large numbers of UUVs. Systems for launching and recovering from a submerged submarine also must be explored, he said.

“At the end of the day, the nation depends on us and this is going to be an era when the nation depends on us more than ever and the nuclear Navy, in my opinion will lead the U.S. Navy,” he said. “So the submarine force ought to be a leader in this unmanned area.”