AwS Saturday: The Science of Sailing the Seven Seas

It may not look like it at first, but the military is really all about science.

For as much it’s all about the duty, honor, strength, patriotism and warfighter capabilities that make America’s military the indomitable force they are, the core is a scientific one.

One with no small history of accomplishment, either.

Photo: Navy Rear Adm. John White. (U.S. Navy official photo/Released)

Navy Rear Adm. John White. (U.S. Navy official photo/Released)

From the first computer system to the GPS.  From UAVs to artificial intelligence.  From new body armor to satellites in space.  The military has been a trailblazer of sorts, leading the way in scientific and technological achievements.  Because for as much as we want the strongest, most well-equipped fighting force, we also want a well-informed, scientifically sound one as well.

And for men like Rear Admiral John White, that makes all the difference.

Recently I sat down with the Navy’s ultimate scientist, Rear Admiral John W. White.  Admiral White is the U.S. Navy’s Oceanographer and Navigator.  He’s also the director of space and maritime domain awareness.  So what does that mean, exactly?

“It’s a couple of different jobs, really,” he explains.  “I am the senior oceanography officer in the Navy.  That means that I’m responsible for all the policy and budget or resources that get used to characterize the atmosphere, the ocean environment, and even to map stars and keep track of timing for the Navy for navigational purposes.”

Basically, he says, he’s doing all of that so-called scientific work and applying it to Navy missions.  No small feat, either.  But it doesn’t stop there.

“As navigator, [my role is to] extend our scientific knowledge to looking at the systems and the concepts we use to navigate our ships, submarines, airplanes and people.”

His goal is to help these operations, these people, to operate smoothly and efficiently all across the globe.  On time, too.

“The interesting part has always been looking at new scientific concepts, new methods, and new understandings of how we do things.  The unmanned vehicles that we use today are helping to grow an understanding of the physical environment.”

A physical environment that is anything but stagnant.  With everything that’s changing, from the environment, to technology, to temperature alterations in the artic, Admiral White is tasked with taking that information and applying it to Navy operations.  That mission that is a part of a process designed to understand our atmospheric reality.

The goal?  “To keep our men and women safe as they go out and operate in hazardous environments.”

As well as using that information to be effective in warfighting, he adds.  As Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Greenert says, “it’s warfighting first.”

“If we can understand the environment and apply it to warfighting, we can be more effective,” Admiral White explains.  “We can use this to have an advantage over our adversaries.”

 This is where taking that science stuff and applying it toward Navy missions comes in.

The most important part is making the right decisions at a senior level, he says.  These are challenging times, with no shortage financial constraints.  That’s no secret.  Right now there are a lot of hard choices that are happening at all levels of leadership.

Something Admiral White takes seriously.  “I’ve got to make sure that we make the right choices in what to do with respect to our people, the systems, the ships, everything that we have.  Making sure that we do the best with the resources we have.”

When it comes to his job is director of space and maritime awareness, he informed me (to our mutual disappointment) that this did not mean we have a space fleet program that he’s in charge of…yet.

“It’s really about using space,” he explains.  “Especially the satellites that we have; the ones that do communications, navigation.  Making sure those Navy equities are taking care of our people.”

This is something that is not Navy-specific, either, he points out.  There are many other branches of the services who perform missions using the space environment insomuch the same fashion.  Many systems are also owned by the Air Force, or national agencies, but he points out that the efforts are joint collaborations with the same goal: to keep service members safe.

“We need to use space to our advantage,” he says.  “It’s becoming more and more important as space technologies and communications gain in capabilities.  What we’ve done in space has grown exponentially.  So we need to make sure we’re making the right choices in terms of investments and influencing other investments as well.”

An example of this comes from the recent launching of the Navy’s second mobile user operating system (MUOS) satellite a few weeks ago.  That’s the ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite communications. While the Air Force is still the executive agency for space, the Navy retains ownership of the UHF satellite communications systems.  This is because they rely so heavily on that technology at sea.  It was – and still is – the best way to communicate and move things around while underway.  The Navy funds, resources, and launches these satellites into space.

“We operate, maintain, and monitor [those satellites],” Admiral White says.  “All the UHF satellite communications for all the services including the Army use those satellites that we have in space.”

While these satellites are propelling our society forward into a new capable era of technological advancement, nothing is without its caveats.

Graphic: And I think we all know how I feel about that. (Graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

And I think we all know how I feel about that. (Graphic illustration by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

“Space is tricky business,” he says.  With millions of dollars invested in these plans, the Navy is dedicated to keeping our UHF eyes in the sky in ship shape and Bristol fashion, if you will.  After all, space is kind of a big deal.  As you all well know.  A sentiment echoed not only by myself, I might add.

“As anyone with satellite TV will tell you, yes it is,” Admiral White agreed.  “Or anyone with a GPS in their car, or who wants to use their cell phones.  It’s all about space at some point there.”

The goal of safe navigation is the foundation of the Navy, the admiral says.  And no wonder.  From the first people who sailed out into a dark and windless night, to the sailors of today on-board our ships and submarines, knowing where you’re going – and how to get there safely – is imperative.

New technologies and advancements are making that mission easier than ever.

“We want to have an understanding of the battle space,” Admiral White says.  “If we understand it then we can operate it safely.  We’re giving home field advantage to an away game.”

And speaking of advantage, these technological luxuries do not come for free.  A lot of work goes into making the modern maritime environment efficient.

“Don’t take advantage of the things you rely on,” he cautions.  “Knowing what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why it’s efficient is so important.  You don’t want to miss the big picture.”

What the Navy is doing is critical to the nation, and to the globe, he says proudly.  However, what the admiral appreciates the most are the people.

“The people are just incredible,” he says.  “They’re amazing.  They’re all so dedicated.”

One of the most exciting uses of new equipment is what we’re doing with unmanned vehicle technologies, he says.  The fact that we’re able to see farther and faster – with much less risk to people and the use of high tech equipment – is not only smart but fiscally responsible as well.  Technology has gone leaps and bounds in recent years, he points out.

“We don’t even use weather balloons anymore in the U.S. Navy.  We use unmanned vehicles.  The UAVs can sense the atmosphere more accurately than we ever could before.”

One of the biggest, and arguably the most important changes, is the way information is transferred.  And how quickly.

“We’re moving information around and fusing it together,” he says.  Having the capability to transmit information to our service members quickly and effectively is imperative to mission readiness.

It’s more than a tall ship and a star to sail her by.  Having a military that is informed, armed and scientifically ready is something that’s arguably worth the technological necessity.  A sentiment echoed by the admiral himself.

“Don’t forget about the value of having a scientific basis for the military,” Admiral White says.  “Don’t kill the scientific capability.”

Because, after all, science matters. Even – and especially – to the armed forces.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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