Naval Oceanography is Adapting, Embracing the New
By George Lammons, NAVIFOR Public Affairs
STENNIS SPACE CENTER, MS -- Naval Oceanography is quickly adapting to meet new threats to our nation.
“We’re at a point of pivot, as is the rest of the Navy,” said RDML John Okon, commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC), speaking at the recent Sea-Air-Space ’19.
NMOC defines and applies the physical environment, from the bottom of the ocean to the stars, to ensure that the U.S. Navy has the freedom of action to deter aggression, maintain freedom of the seas and win wars.
“For the past, say, 20 years, we’ve been really focused heavily on the counter-insurgency desert fight,” said Okon. “In ’18 when the NDS (National Defense Strategy) came out and most recently with the [release of the] Navy strategy, we refocused back to the deep blue.”
Okon is leading his command’s mission to complement the Navy’s strategic change with his people, with his capabilities and with innovation, and he communicates a sense of urgency in the task.
“First, it starts with us. Everything we do in the Navy and the Joint Force starts with our environmental analysis and prediction,” he said.
Consequently, he is taking a fresh look at the way the command does its business, even reexamining training of aerographer’s mates – the enlisted rating of weather and ocean forecasters.
In the past, aerographer’s mates were trained based on individual warfare areas – specialists in mine warfare or anti-submarine warfare or aviation forecasting or hydrography or another of the meteorology and oceanography warfare area specialties. That process limited deployment and assignment options for the small meteorology and oceanography community.
“We were self-limiting in how we trained and how we deployed,” he said.
But the small size of the rating meant that aerographer’s mates could stay stove piped to accommodate warfare-specific operations, especially given the increased operational tempo of missions.
“We’ve revamped their qualification standards so that we know when I deploy a forecaster to an expeditionary strike group or a carrier strike group or to contingency operations supporting an out-of-area deployer, that forecaster, that Sailor, can go use his trade or her trade from the bottom of the ocean all the way to the stars. That’s what we’re doing because it’s what our Navy and our Joint Forces demand,” he said.
And the change is not limited to enlisted Sailors.
“I [also] need officers to be able to apply their craft, along with their enlisted Sailors, to the battle problem because you may not always have the enlisted forecaster,” he said.
The people, he said, go hand-in-hand with capability and innovation.
Persistent near real-time environmental sampling and forecasting require limitless information to ensure accuracy and consistency. So the meteorology and oceanography community is constantly looking for equipment that will provide more and fresher data to make forecast models more accurate. Okon’s command has 180 unmanned underwater vehicles of different types with different capabilities for different types of jobs.
“We are the largest operators of unmanned systems in the Navy,” he said. “Last year, Naval Oceanography broke through and was the first operational command in the world to operate more than 100 unmanned systems at once from one location. We did that from our Glider Operations Center at Stennis Space Center; 100 gliders operated around the world, command and controlled from one central location.”
But, they need more.
“We need 1,000 where our Navy operates,” he said.
He said he also needs more sophisticated and more accurate environmental forecast models.
“Right now we’re not closing on the gap or gaining any advantage there [on forecast models], and so, we need leap-ahead technology,” he said.
“Later this year, we’ll put into operation for the first time a fully coupled two-way coupling air-ocean-land and ice model – the first of its kind in the world.”
It is still not enough. A new model, for Okon, a “game changer” is coming in 2022, he said, “and we’re looking to bring that to the left because it’s a new way of looking at the environment.”
The last part of his three-prong approach is innovation; innovation that requires the partnership of Navy operators, academia and industry; “a team sport” as he calls it.
“If we have people and capability we’ll survive, but to thrive we have to innovate. If we are conducting business largely the way we were conducting business 10 years ago; five years from now we are going to be behind,” he said with the same note of urgency that he had when he talked about changing the training.
Innovation is a culture that not only develops operational technological improvement; it puts those improvements in the hands of the operators to benefit the Fleet.
“We have to go speed to Fleet,” he said.
NMOC, a part of the Navy Information Warfare Enterprise, has approximately 2,500 globally distributed military and civilian personnel who collect, process and exploit environmental information to assist Fleet and Joint commanders in all warfare areas to guarantee the U.S. Navy’s freedom of action in the physical battlespace from the depths of the ocean to the stars.