America First? Don’t forget our seas
Ocean exploration key to helping U.S. keep its economic, national security edge
By Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney II, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
In building a policy agenda for our nation’s future, the Trump Administration has made “America First” its guiding principle. With that in mind, our federal government must continue to invest in U.S. scientists to explore a resource critical to American strength and prosperity – our oceans.
Why invest in undersea research? That’s easy. We are the greatest maritime nation in history and our national security and economic health are inextricably linked to our unique position in the middle of the world’s ocean system.
In addition, half of the United States’ territory is underwater. Put another way, when one counts the U.S. exclusive economic zone – that area seaward from our coastline to about 200 miles – America’s property holding doubles.
But even that resource-rich American property is hardly explored or routinely observed. To understand the dynamics of our submerged world, oceanographic institutions – American institutions – need to explore and observe both close to shore and far out at sea. Close to shore because it holds American resources. Far out at sea because our U.S. Navy must dominate there.
Consider the importance of ocean research to the military ships, submarines and Sailors voyaging far and wide in the global ocean on behalf of our national defense. The Navy’s operational superiority relies on our ability to maximize performance in all ocean environments. To achieve that, we must continually advance our knowledge of how the ocean works, and how to take advantage of it. Our adversaries certainly understand this and continue to make significant investments in ocean research and infrastructure.
Mapping the seafloor, for instance, is crucial to ensure safe navigation for submarines in remote or unfriendly parts of the world. Daily temperature variations affect marine life but also bend sound in the sea – and understanding these acoustics is vital to submarine stealth. Predicting internal (underwater) waves and deep ocean currents is critical to protect both submarines and commercial offshore oil operations. This is an investment in American security.
Mapping the bottom and characterizing varying ocean waters in our own exclusive economic zone leads to better fishing decisions, discovery of non-living resources and safer commercial navigation. This is an investment in understanding and the pursuit of America’s assets.
The nexus between civilian oceanographers and the U.S. military has deep roots. Beginning in the middle of the last century, America invested heavily in creating an infrastructure and talent pool in our oceanographic and geophysical institutions, with World War II and the Cold War giving many researchers their start.
Today’s challenges are different but no less imperative. Russia and China have advanced their military capabilities to act as global powers, and their goals are backed by a growing arsenal of high-end warfighting capabilities, many of which aim to target our vulnerabilities.
To retain our edge, the United States not only needs to press forward vigorously on ocean research, but also encourage the development of a highly technical oceanographic workforce: oil and gas engineers, aquaculturists, renewable offshore energy designers, port managers, government analysts, chemists and acousticians, and teachers.
This too is America First – a trained core of workers whose talents will protect America’s security and economic well-being.
Congress has long recognized the value of science to our nation’s future, and its leadership in making appropriations in oceanography for the Navy, National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is commendable.
But we are still way behind, and the need for answers from our oceans only grows.
This nation’s oceanographic institutions have ample talent to produce discoveries that will keep America first. Let’s give them the support they need.
Paul G. Gaffney II is a retired Navy vice admiral and former president of the National Defense University and Monmouth University. He is an ocean policy fellow at the Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute.