Magazine article National Defense

Custom-Made Weather Maps Critical to Naval Operations

Magazine article National Defense

Custom-Made Weather Maps Critical to Naval Operations

Article excerpt

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. …

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