The submarine Navy needs to invest in unmanned underwater systems and faces a crossroads on par with its iconic shift to nuclear power in the 1950s, the new head of the Nuclear Navy's new boss said Wednesday.

"The way I look at it, we're kind of at a fork in the road," said Adm. Frank Caldwell, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, of Naval Reactors, in a speech opening the annual Naval Submarine League symposium in Northern Virginia.

"If you look at our history, we've been here before," he said. "Just like when we decided to go down the path of nuclear propulsion, or when we decided to go down the path of the ballistic missile submarine, or our deep submergence program."

Caldwell argues that as the sub force faces a dip in its numbers next decade, and new technologies threaten threaten threats against underwater communications, the Navy needsed to invest rapidly in unmanned underwater systems to augment missions like intelligence gathering, submarine tracking and more.

"The necessity exists because of challenges we face from potential adversaries," Caldwell said. "It exists because of the submarine hiatus we took in the 1990s and the impending dip force structure we'll have late in the 2020s ... and we may be called upon in the future to protect undersea infrastructure, something we haven't really considered before."

"You add all these up I think there is an imperative to move forward more swiftly in this unmanned realm," he said.

The speech, delivered at the annual meeting of the Naval Submarine League, was Caldwell's first public appearance since taking office in August, replacing Adm. John Richardson, who took the reins as the new chief of naval operations.

The Navy recently stood up a new office for unmanned systems lead by Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, a surface warfare officer, who is leading the Navy's effort to match emerging technologies with the needs of the fleet. Undersea systems have tremendous potential but they must also overcome difficult challenges like communication, autonomous navigation and extended battery life in order to be operationally functional in missions.

The integration of women on submarines has also progressed with the first woman serving on the attack submarine Minnesota and the ongoing berthing modifications on board the guided-missile submarine Michigan, which will accommodate the Silent Service's first enlisted women submariners. on submarines.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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