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Custom-Made Weather Maps Critical to Naval Operations.

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 nations enemies is a major part of West's job.

The oceanographer of the Navy--head-quartered 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, Cob., 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:

* Map and study the ocean floor.

* Collect water samples.

* Measure acoustic properties in specific bodies of water.

* Process and analyze the data on board with the latest computer technology.

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.

Just Begun

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," West said.

"That's where most future wars, peacekeeping missions, evacuations and humanitarian operations are likely to rake 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 other countries.

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 Stares and its territories, but the Navy requires timely, accurate forecasts worldwide, wherever and whenever the fleet operates, West pointed out.

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 barometric pressure.

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 cyclone 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 nor 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 raking its work in precise time and astrometry into space. The Defense Departments 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."
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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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