In 1994, the USNS Littlehales (T-AGS 52)–a U.S. Navy oceanographic
ship–completed a survey of the 360-kilometer coastline of
the tiny, former communist country of Albania. The research provided
detailed information on such subjects as tides, currents and sea
depths that was valuable at the time to the fledgling Albanian economy.
For the Navy, however, the real value of that information came
five years later when U.S. ships cruised those waters while launching
aircraft and missiles against Yugoslavia, according to Rear Adm.
Richard D. West, oceanographer of the Navy.
During that conflict, West’s command used information from
that survey to produce full-color, large-scale charts of the Adriatic.
Special "mobile environmental teams (METs) from Navy bases
in Norfolk, Va., and Rota, Spain–placed onboard individual
ships during the operation–used it to provide tailor-made
forecasts to help commanders cope with the region’s notoriously
poor and constantly changing weather.
"Without that data, the whole naval part of that operation
could have been disastrous," West told National Defense. Without
accurate information about the Balkan coastline, ships could have
run aground, even sunk, he noted. Precision-guided munitions would
have been much less effective.
Providing ship commanders with enough information about the sea
to help them to avoid such disasters and prevail against the nation’s
enemies is a major part of West’s job.
The oceanographer of the Navy–headquartered in the century-old
Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.–leads his service’s
effort to study every aspect of the world’s oceans that might
influence the outcome of military operations.
Under his auspices, more than 3,000 military and civilian personnel
are at work, gathering oceanographic information around the globe.
With an annual budget of $427 million, they operate the Naval Meteorological
and Oceanographic Command (METOC), at the Stennis Space Center,
in Mississippi; two major supercomputer facilities at Bay St. Louis,
Miss., and Monterey, Calif.; more than 30 oceanographic centers
and detachments as far away as the island of Diego Garcia, in the
Indian Ocean, and Keflavik, Iceland, in the North Atlantic, and
aboard dozens of ships.
Navy oceanography also includes astronomers pinpointing positions
of the stars for navigational purposes at observatories in Washington;
Flagstaff and Anderson Mesa, Ariz.; Colorado Springs, Colo., and
Cerro Tololo, Chile.
To chart the world’s seas, the Navy has been modernizing
its research fleet. It now has eight survey ships, all operated
for the oceanographer by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command.
Six were built in the past decade.
The newest addition is the USNS Mary Sears (TAGS-64), named for
an early pioneer in oceanography and launched in October at the
Halter Marine shipyard in Moss Point, Miss. Like all ships of her
class, the Mary Sears has a length of 329 feet and a displacement
of 4,700 tons, and she carries the latest in over-the-side sensors
and sampling equipment, including bathythermographs, bottom corers
and seismic equipment. She is especially designed to:
The Navy also owns five research ships operated by the academic
community. In February, the Atlantic Marine Inc. (AMI) shipyard
in Jacksonville, Fla., began building a sixth vessel of this type,
the R/V Kilo Moana, to be delivered in 2002. The Kilo Moana–from
the Hawaiian word for "oceanographer"–will be operated
by the University of Hawaii. With an overall length of 185 feet
and a displacement of 2,542 tons, this ship features a new twin-hull
design, known as Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull, or SWATH, which
is intended to provide increased stability even in adverse sea conditions.
The work of surveying the earth’s oceans has only just begun,
West explained. "We’ve mapped every inch of the surface
of the moon," he said. "But we’ve surveyed only
5 percent of the ocean floors on our own planet."
Priority is being assigned, he said, to the littoral zones–those
parts of the ocean that are closest to shore. "About two thirds
of the world’s people live within 200 miles of the coast,"
"That’s where most future wars, peacekeeping missions,
evacuations and humanitarian operations are likely to take place.
We’ve got to be able to sail in and out of those places."
To conduct research in foreign waters, the Navy prefers to secure
the permission of the nations involved. It has signed cooperative
agreements with 26 nations to gain the right to conduct oceanographic
operations in their waters. Negotiations are underway with a dozen
As the result of such agreements, survey ships have been active
in the East and South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf, the Mediterranean
and the Caribbean.
"Friendly countries that don’t have the capability to
do these surveys for themselves are eager to participate, because
we share the data with them," West said.
Survey vessels are not sent into unfriendly waters, he noted. But
oceanographic information can be obtained from such locations by
use of advanced technologies, such as satellites, unmanned air and
underwater vehicles and new classes of expendable atmospheric sensors
and wave temperature-sensing buoys.
Navy oceanographers also are studying marine mammals, particularly
their migration routes and the effects of sonar on them.
"We’re trying to minimize incidents between them and
Navy ships," said West. "One of the options is to avoid
them. We’re developing a database to tell us where they are."
Navy scientists, additionally, are working to learn whether low-frequency
active sonar–which resembles the sounds made by whales–may
confuse them, sometimes driving them to their deaths on the beach.
Another important assignment for the Navy’s oceanographer
is meteorology, or weather forecasting. The Commerce Department’s
National Weather Service concentrates primarily upon the United
States and its territories, but the Navy requires timely, accurate
forecasts worldwide, wherever and whenever the fleet operates, West
Navy supercomputers in Mississippi and California analyze and predict
changes in the oceans and atmosphere every day. Six regional centers
coordinate environmental services over the entire world. These centers
provide weather forecasts and optimum routing services for ships
at sea, and customized services to nearby commanders and shore activities.
The National Ice Center, jointly operated by the Navy, the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard in Suitland,
Md., provides ice analyses and forecasts for the Arctic and Anarctic
regions, U.S. coastal waters and the Great Lakes.
The METOC center in Pearl Harbor and the nearby Joint Typhoon Warning
Center, operated with the Air Force, issue tropical cyclone warnings
to U.S. interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. A tropical cyclone
is a violent wind system rotating inwards toward an area of low
Once those winds reach 75 miles per hour, the system is called
a hurricane in the North Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans and
a typhoon in the Northwest Pacific. In the Southwest Pacific and
the Indian Ocean, it is called a severe tropical cyclone, a severe
cyclonic storm or a tropical cyclone.
METOC detachments are located at all naval air facilities and selected
other bases. MET teams are assigned permanently to aircraft carriers,
some amphibious assault ships and staff command and control ships.
They also embark on smaller ships for specialized missions.
The MET teams were particularly useful during the 1999 campaign
against Yugoslavia, when poor weather–including extensive
cloudiness, snow and scattered thunderstorms–plagued the Balkans
80 percent of the time, complicating combat operations.
Weather and Weapons
On one ship alone–the USS Nicholson, a Spruance-class destroyer–accurate
forecasts "proved critical in the planning and execution of
nearly 200 cruise-missile launches," according to Chief Aerographer’s
Mate Ron Plourde, head of the vessel’s MET team.
While poor weather did hamper firing of air-delivered precision-guided
munitions, it did not hamper the launching of ship-based Tomahawk
land-attack missiles (TLAMs), said Aerographer’s Mate First
Class Michael Kotyk, who was aboard another destroyer, the USS Ross.
"Using targeting data acquired from GPS (Global-Positioning
System) satellites, TLAMs were fired successfully without a single
weather-caused cancellation," he said.
The oceanographer of the Navy also is responsible for making sure
that the clocks of the military services, the federal government
and the nation, as a whole, are accurate. The Naval Observatory–under
the command of the oceanographer–maintains the Master Clock
to keep precise time for the entire United States. It uses resonating
atoms to measure time to within a billionth of a second per day.
In 1845, the observatory–then located in the Foggy Bottom
neighborhood of Washington–installed a time ball atop the
institution’s telescope dome, explained a Navy spokesman,
Sr. Chief Aerographer’s Mate Robert S. Freeman. The time ball
was dropped every day precisely at noon, enabling ships in the Potomac
River to set their clocks before putting to sea.
Time is important in helping sailors navigate, Freeman said. The
earth revolves through 360 degrees every 24 hours, he explained.
Each degree of longitude–the angular distance east or west
from a standard meridian, such as Greenwich, to the meridian of
any other place–represents 15 minutes of time. The difference
between local time and that of a fixed position provides the longitude–provided
the clocks are precise.
The observatory now has additional, larger telescopes in Arizona,
Colorado and Chile. In 1978, photoplates taken with a 61-inch astrometric
reflector telescope at the Flagstaff station led to the discovery
of a moon circling the planet Pluto.
The newest instrument–now under development at the Lowell
Observatory’s Anderson Mesa Station near Flagstaff–is
the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer, which will provide unprecedented
ground-based astrometry data and images.
The observatory is taking its work in precise time and astrometry
into space. The Defense Department’s Global Positioning System
of 24 navigational satellites each carry highly accurate, portable
atomic clocks in order to synchronize the time at military facilities
around the world with the observatory’s Master Clock in Washington.
In 2004, a team led by the observatory is planning to launch a
new optical telescope into space to provide the sharpest picture
yet of nearby stars. The $162 million telescope–known as the
Full-Sky Atrometric Mapping Explorer (FAME)–is intended to
be 30 times as accurate as previous position-measuring spacecraft.
Using this growing array of increasingly space-based navigational
technology, Navy ships can plot their courses digitally, displaying
and switching their charts more quickly and with greater ease, if
they are equipped to do so. However, much of the Navy continues
to use the traditional paper charts, as it always has. But that
apparently is about to change.
The chief of naval operations has set a deadline for the service
to "go paperless" by 2007. And he has given the oceanographer,
West, an additional title–navigator of the Navy–and
ordered him to coordinate the change.
"I think we can beat that deadline," West told National
Defense. I think we can do it by 2004." His command is in the
process of choosing the additional navigational equipment to do
the job. He doesn’t think it will be expensive.
Buying the equipment and training people to use it will cost "probably
less than $50 million over the next three or four years," he
said, joking: "They sweep more money off the floor every night
over there at the Pentagon."