Place strategy

The Navy must establish its oceanographic community to lead the country

When I was a new captain serving at the Pentagon in 2009, the Navy joined four separate officer communities (Intelligence, Crypto Warfare, Oceanography, and Information Professional) to form what is now the Navy Warfare Community. information from the Navy. The argument for this change centered on the efficiencies and synergies that could result from combining the various Navy disciplines that collected and disseminated information. Personally, I did not agree with this merger because I believed that it would dilute the expertise of the members of my oceanographic profession. Nonetheless, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) led the change, so I saluted like a good sailor and carried on.

My Pentagon colleague at the time, retired Captain Bill Bray, recently analyzed the state of the Navy’s information community and the picture he painted is anything but positive. The specialized expertise of information warfare officers has in effect been sacrificed in favor of a more generalist skill set, largely by requiring all members of the community to devote valuable time and resources to acquiring skills in other sub-disciplines. This has been particularly detrimental to naval oceanography due to the extensive scientific and technical training the field requires, including a minimum education level of a Master of Science. This specialization change can already do some real damage, as the Navy has recently seen an increase in preventable weather-related accidents.

Naval Oceanography provides meteorology, physical oceanography, hydrography, underwater acoustics, astrometry, and accurate temporal information to the entire Department of Defense (DOD). The community is critical to applications as diverse as ballistic missile defense, carrier-based strike operations, submarine warfare, as well as space and cyber operations. Given the mandate of the new National Security Strategy to modernize and strengthen the US military, the naval oceanography workforce that provides this information should be supported and not under-optimized. This can be accomplished by restoring the community to its previous position as an independent specialty.

Even more compellingly, separating naval oceanography from information warfare can allow the Navy to more effectively use the community to demonstrate critical leadership in three emerging areas of opportunity:

  1. Climate Action: The DOD and Navy have prioritized climate change adaptation and mitigation actions. The senior officials leading these efforts are policy professionals who lack scientific degrees and technical experience. On the other hand, the naval oceanography community is led by the Navy Oceanographer, a Navy flag officer with a graduate degree in geophysical sciences. Historically, officers who reach this position have decades of applied Earth science experience, making them superior to speak to the Navy, DOD, and national climate initiatives. The Navy oceanographer has held that role in the past, and taking it back would align with the Biden administration’s elevation of the White House science adviser to a cabinet-level position. It could also inject a much-needed combat perspective into the Navy’s climatic narrative.
  2. Arctic Strategy: The recently released National Arctic Region Strategy (NSAR) outlines a 10-year program to advance American interests while demonstrating American leadership at home and abroad. Naval Oceanography is already taking steps to achieve many of the objectives of this strategy, such as improving: Arctic observation, charting and mapping; weather, water and sea ice forecasts; sub-seasonal and seasonal forecast; to research; presence; as well as cooperation with allies and partners. Again, the Navy Oceanographer played a lead role in the implementation of the previous NSAR by developing and executing the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap for 2014-2030. The Navy can only benefit from a repetition of these efforts.
  3. Ocean Policy: The White House Ocean Policy Committee (OPC) is executing a two-year action plan to fulfill its congressional mandate to coordinate ocean science, technology, and management policy within of the federal government. A laudable goal of this plan is to strengthen America’s ocean science and technology enterprise. One woeful failure of the document, however, is to make no mention of the Navy’s essential contributions to this endeavor as a counterweight to our competitors. The Navy Oceanographer and Chief of Naval Research leads the Navy’s Oceanic Task Force, which was formed in 2017 to meet this very objective of the OPC’s action plan. Once again Navy appears to be behind the races in this national effort where it has the potential to take pole position.

The common denominator in each of these domains is the ocean. It is the primary driver of the Earth’s climate, the dominant domain of Arctic geography, and a fundamental feature of national politics. As the national authority on the ocean, the naval oceanography community is the clear choice to seize these leadership opportunities. The Navy has to put it in a place to do it.

Rear Admiral (Retired) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC and former Acting and Deputy Administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Acting Undersecretary and Deputy Secretary of Commerce. Prior to NOAA, he served 32 years in the United States Navy, ending his career as a Navy Oceanographer, Director of the Navy’s Climate Change Task Force, and Director of the Navy’s Ocean Task Force. Marine.