COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ROBERT MONROE

Oceanographic and military missions increasingly overlap

The oceans between Japan and the Horn of Africa include disputed territorial waters, pirate-infested regions where insurers refuse to cover Scripps Institution of Oceanography research vessels, and coastlines experiencing the world’s most tangible effects of climate change. These conditions put our nation’s security at risk.

And in these troubled waters, Scripps and the U.S. Navy are finding an ever-growing number of reasons to help each other navigate through difficult passages. An Oct. 24 meeting between Adm. Robert Willard, the Hawaii-based commander of the United States Pacific Command (a joint command overseeing efforts of all branches of the U.S. military), and scientists at the Scripps campus revealed several areas of common interest.

With its size and Pacific coast location, the Scripps research fleet operates in an area with boundaries that neatly overlap with the Pacific Command’s region. The potential for Scripps to collect vital ocean data through Navy-directed projects is possibly greater than ever before, even though the two entities share a long history.

It dates back to before World War II, when Scripps research vessel E.W. Scripps was pressed into service for naval operations. Scripps researchers helped the Navy make tide and wave predictions prior to amphibious assaults in World War II theaters spreading from Africa to Normandy. During the Cold War, Scripps marine acoustics experts helped develop technologies to enable detection of enemy submarines and ships. Recently, Office of Naval Research funding led to the creation of portable meteorological stations designed at Scripps and deployed in Afghanistan.

In total last year, Scripps performed $30 million worth of research for the Navy. Much of the work was directly supported by the Department of Defense to meet future naval needs. Scripps Director Tony Haymet hopes the institution can contribute more to Navy research needs that are specific to the Pacific region.

Time and again, it has been shown that investments in research have had large payoffs to the Navy. In light of pending Department of Defense budget cuts, the cost savings provided by research investments can’t be understated. Forecasts and assessments of the ocean and coastal environments will continue to allow the Navy to remain responsive to emerging missions, while operating in the current economic downturn.

Top Scripps researchers briefed Willard on a variety of current and near-future research projects that could directly have a bearing on naval operations: Scripps recently demonstrated acoustic communication through 700 kilometers of ocean, a first. Scripps scientists will participate in ocean research programs in Vietnamese waters and the Mekong Delta with Vietnamese colleagues next year. A glacier-melting brown cloud of pollution over South Asia could heighten tensions of water supply in the region. In the Philippine Sea, Scripps researchers are finding that acoustic signals can be understood even in the deepest parts of the ocean with complex seafloor structure.

The U.S. armed forces’ needs are not strictly military. In a year that has included large-scale humanitarian responses to a tsunami in Japan and flooding in Thailand, Willard said the Pacific Command now averages a humanitarian mission every eight weeks. Scripps researchers believe they can aid planning for climate-driven disasters given the chance to retrieve more data from places like the Indian Ocean.

There, barriers ranging from poverty to piracy have left the ocean as one of the most understudied in the world despite the number of urban centers ringing it. The small island nations that ring the western Pacific were also identified as areas that can now be efficiently monitored for climate change impacts, a significant threat given the low-lying land, scarcity of fresh water, and local fisheries that those countries depend on.

Jostling on a national level also takes place in the crowded South China Sea, through which $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade moves through waters increasingly dominated by China. In such an environment, oceanographic data of all sorts are an asset on scientific, military and even diplomatic levels. Scripps remains ready and hopeful to start the next chapter of its special relationship with the U.S. military through Pacific Command.

Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations online magazine.

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