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Ocean exploration is key to helping U.S. keep its economic, national security edge

Joe Cione, who studies how storms interact with the ocean at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami, displays a research drone.
Joe Cione, who studies how storms interact with the ocean at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Division in Miami, displays a research drone. AP File

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 increasingly valuable American resources. Far out at sea because our U.S. Navy must dominate there, and that depends on ocean information.

Consider the importance of ocean research to the warships, 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. This is an investment in American security, first.

Mapping the sea floor 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 America’s assets, first.

And here’s a third America First consideration. The nexus between civilian oceanographers and the U.S. Navy has deep roots. Beginning in the middle of the last century, America invested heavily in creating an infrastructure and talent pool in our oceanographic 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 must stay in first. 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.

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