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CHIPS Articles: Rear Adm. Jonathan W. White Talks Naval Oceanography, Climate Change and Arctic Operations

Rear Adm. Jonathan W. White Talks Naval Oceanography, Climate Change and Arctic Operations
Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy; Director, Space and Maritime Domain Awareness (OPNAV N2/N6E); and Director, Task Force Climate Change
By CHIPS Magazine - July-September 2014
Rear Adm. Jonathan White holds the position of “oceanographer of the U.S. Navy” and is the 20th person to do so since its inception in 1960. Assigned to the Chief of Naval Operations staff, White is head of the Oceanography, Space and Maritime Domain Awareness directorate (OPNAV N2/N6E). He also serves as head of the Navy's Positioning, Navigation and Timing directorate and he holds the title “navigator of the Navy.” In addition, White is director of the Navy's Task Force on Climate Change, the naval deputy to the National Oceanic and Space Administration, and director of the Office of the Department of Defense Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness.

Rear Adm. White has said the “E” in his directorate’s name stands for “environment.” CHIPS asked him to discuss why the environment is important to the Navy and why the DoD needs an executive agent for Maritime Domain Awareness. He responded to questions in writing in early June.

Q: What does it mean to be the navigator of the Navy?

A:In 2000 the Oceanographer was assigned additional responsibilities as the Navigator of the Navy to guide the Navy’s transition from traditional paper chart plotting to electronic navigation systems and digital nautical charts. In some respects, this is one of the more important jobs I have. Electronic navigation provides many benefits to the Fleet, including enhanced safety of navigation, situational awareness, and interoperability.

In my capacity as Navigator, I serve as an advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) for navigation policy, technical performance and certification standards for Navy electronic charting systems, GI&S standards and specifications, and emerging navigation technologies.

Q: When we talked last year, you indicated that the Electronic Chart Display and Information System - Navy variant (ECDIS-N) is installed in about 80 percent of U.S. Navy ships – has the number of installations increased?

A:We’re now above 80 percent on ECDIS-N installs, but we are gaining by also installing more updated versions of our current ECDIS-N throughout the Fleet.

Q: There have been a few ship groundings and accidents in the last year. Has the Navy changed any of the procedures for navigation?

A: Navigation practices and policies are very sound throughout the Fleet. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of some recent grounding events, my staff and I have worked and resourced with other stakeholders to ensure our equipment, training, chartsand policies are best aligned to meet requirements and future goals.

Q: You are also head of Maritime Domain Awareness. Would you define MDA?

A: Maritime Domain Awareness is formally defined as the effective understanding of anything associated with the global maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment of the United States.

Throughout much of the world, aircraft operations are constantly monitored and we generally know where most of the traffic is and where it is going. That is not currently true of the maritime domain, but that is the goal. By integrating all-source intelligence, law enforcement information, and open-source data, we want to maintain a shared, global picture of all activity on the world’s oceans.

Effective MDA enables the early identification of potential threats and enhances appropriate responses. It represents a critical part of overall Battlespace Awareness that enables information dominance and warfighting advantage in the maritime environment.

Q: MDA plays a huge part in the Navy’s strategy for Information Dominance; what are the systems and methods the Navy uses to create MDA?

A: There are a number of tools and technologies that support MDA. I’ll mention three of the most important.

One is the Automatic Identification System, or AIS, which is a navigation safety communications system adopted by the International Maritime Organization. AIS provides voyage information, including a vessel’s identity, type, position, heading, course and speed, to appropriately equipped shore stations, other ships, and aircraft. International and U.S. domestic law requires that AIS be carried on certain prescribed vessels. AIS data is available to anyone carrying an AIS transponder and is within range to receive the signal.

Another important tool is the Maritime Safety and Security Information System, or MSSIS, which is an Internet-based, non-classified data-sharing system. The MSSIS initiative has obtained international acceptance as a standard for the exchange of maritime data and has become the maritime data sharing system of choice by over 75 nations.

Finally, there is the Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Visualization Services (GVS) suite, a flagship program of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. GVS delivers web-based visualization and data access capabilities, providing a global maritime "Shared Situational Awareness Capability." In essence, it provides an enhanced ability to collect, display and analyze information to better understand the maritime environment and identify threats.

Q: Do unmanned systems play a role in MDA?

A: Not significantly at this time, although unmanned systems are definitely something we hope to include in the future.

Q: What does it mean to be the DoD executive agent for MDA?

A: Actually, the Secretary of the Navy is the DoD Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness (EAMDA). I serve as the director of the EAMDA office, overseeing MDA-related matters across the DoD, and I also serve as the resource sponsor for MDA, which means that I provide funding for the program.

Our focus is to build partnerships and fund the development of new tools. We have worked with a number of organizations within the department and across the government to complete MDA-related initiatives. For instance, we provided funding for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Advanced Analytics Facility, which enables a multi-intelligence approach to MDA analysis that allows for the discovery and correlation of previously unknown activities to persons, places, objects, or events. This has contributed to the seizure of multi-metric ton quantities of cocaine, heroin, and weapons and improved the Navy's ability to track foreign naval combatants and maritime vessels of interest.

We have also transitioned a new technology known as Dark Fusion that has more than doubled the number of vessels that can be detected and identified. And we have completed the development of the National MDA Architecture Plan, which provides for a Maritime Information Sharing Environment (MISE) to enhance data sharing at the unclassified level.

Q: Space is also part of your title and responsibilities, is there a relationship between space and MDA?

A: Certainly, satellite data is critical to comprehensive MDA, but my space responsibilities include satellite-based remote sensors for gathering environmental data and communications systems.

Q: What role do you play as the naval deputy to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)?

A: NOAA and Naval Oceanography have many of the same missions, but NOAA’s responsibility is largely in U.S. territorial waters, while Naval Oceanography supports the fleet globally. NOAA includes the National Weather Service and the National Ocean Service, environmental computer modeling, satellite-based remote sensors, hydrographic survey capabilities and charting in U.S. waters. Naval Oceanography includes ocean science, weather forecasting, numerical modeling, and surveying of international waters of interest. We represent the nation’s home and away teams in terms of meteorology and oceanography. By maintaining a close relationship with NOAA, we leverage and share each other’s capabilities, providing more cost-effective approaches to some missions. Our close partnership with NOAA makes good sense for our nation.

Q: You serve as the director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. When you talk about climate change, do you encounter any skeptics?

A: Occasionally, but the data that supports global climate change is constantly increasing. To deny that the climate is changing is to ignore huge amounts of evidence, as well as the scientific consensus.

I think there are two scientific questions that need to be addressed: is the Earth’s climate changing, and is it due to human activities? There is sufficient evidence to prove that the climate is changing, and that alone motivates the Navy. The cause of climate change is a more complex question, but I personally think it’s hard to ignore the correlations between the increase in greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and climate change indicators. Ultimately, these are scientific questions, not political ones.

But there are also two political questions: what should we, as a nation, do to mitigate the changing climate and what should we do to adapt to the changes? These questions need to be part of a national debate.

The Navy views this topic through the lenses of risk assessment and readiness. We study and prepare for any potential threat, and climate change is no different. Mitigating climate change is not a DoD mission requirement, but we would be negligent in our responsibilities if we did not prepare to “adapt” to conditions that may impact our future readiness.

Q: The Arctic is a hot topic right now, and Russia has already shown that it has a stronghold in the Arctic region. Do you think that the U.S. can catch up?

A: If you look at a map of the Arctic Basin you’ll notice that Russia owns almost half the coastline of the Arctic region, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Russia’s Atlantic side has been accessible much longer than the rest of the Arctic due to a warm ocean current that helps keep it ice free. So Russia, and its neighbor, Norway, are ahead of the other Arctic states in developing their Arctic economies and infrastructure.

At this point, our economy is not as dependent on the Arctic. The National Arctic Strategy states that federal development of the U.S. Arctic region will run apace with commercial development, and I think that is starting to gain momentum. So yes, Russia is making strides in commercial development and the building of infrastructure, but the U.S. and our allies are making deliberate decisions with an eye on the future. And remember, the U.S. Navy has been routinely operating submarines in the Arctic since the late 1950s.

Q: To establish dominance in accordance with the Arctic Roadmap, new icebreakers must be built. Can you talk about the importance of adding new icebreakers to the fleet? What other kinds of special equipment will be required in the Arctic?

A: The U.S. federal fleet currently has two heavy icebreakers, both about 38 years old. One of those, USCGC Polar Star, has been refitted, extending its operational life by perhaps another decade. The other is probably not worth salvaging, and the debate is whether to put money into a new heavy icebreaker. The U.S. also has one medium icebreaker, the USCGC Healy, which is around 15 years old and is currently dedicated to scientific missions.

In 1965 the Navy turned over all ice breaking responsibilities to the Coast Guard. The Navy supports the Coast Guard in their requirements, and I think it makes good sense to have a modern, dedicated Arctic icebreaker to assist with disaster response and search and rescue. But at this point, we don’t expect Navy ships to be operating in the ice zone. Our interest in the Arctic has been spurred by the fact that there is increasing open water there, and that is where we will most likely be operating.

The breaking up of the Arctic sea ice means that the ice is more subject to winds and currents, so it is certainly conceivable that a ship operating in open waters could quickly find itself surrounded by sea ice. Having a reliable sea ice forecast and a rescue icebreaker would make it much safer for surface ships to operate there.

The Navy is considering whether we will need ice-hardened vessels for Arctic operations. These ships would not be capable of breaking ice, but a hardened hull would help protect the ship from free-floating sea ice. Ice-hardening, however, is expensive and impacts ship capabilities, like speed and turn-radius. We are still trying to determine the need for ice-hardened hulls.

Q: Do you think that the U.S. will eventually need a dedicated force in the Arctic region?

A: We’ll certainly need the capability to operate there, and we’ll need to exercise that capability, so I think we’ll need to have a “periodic” presence there. I doubt we’ll see a permanent base or presence there during my lifetime, but who knows what unforeseen events will happen in the future. Readiness is about being prepared for anything.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

A: Our Navy has a long history of exploration and research into new frontiers. This legacy remains vitally important to our nation today. Even without climate change, our oceans represent a large unexplored frontier, and maintaining a superior knowledge of that frontier is an important role for the U.S. Navy. Whether in the Arctic or the warmer waters we typically operate today, knowledge of the ocean environment must remain priorities for our Navy and our nation.

Rear Adm. Jonathan White stands in front of a rubidium fountain clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Photo by Bob Freeman, OPNAV N2N6E6C.
Rear Adm. Jonathan White stands in front of a rubidium fountain clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Photo by Bob Freeman, OPNAV N2N6E6C.

This graphic compares the 30-year sea ice minimum average with the 2012 historical minimum, inside the red line. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Navy.
This graphic compares the 30-year sea ice minimum average with the 2012 historical minimum, inside the red line. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Anticipated future Arctic transit routes superimposed over Navy consensus assessment of sea ice extent minima. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Anticipated future Arctic transit routes superimposed over Navy consensus assessment of sea ice extent minima. Graphic courtesy of U.S. Navy.
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