If you take a walk through the halls of the Department of Commerce, you’ll notice among scientists and administrators a handful of uniformed officers. You won’t recognize the insignia as a branch of the military — these officers are nonmilitary, although they play a vital role in defense.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, known as the NOAA Corps, is one of just two uniformed services with no enlisted or warrant officers. The corps is made up of engineers, oceanographers, geologists and meteorologists (among others) who support federal departments in earth science projects.
There are two clear advantages of having nearly 400 uniformed specialists. Unlike civilians, they can be moved rapidly from project to project and — in the case of war — can be deployed quickly to support the military itself.
In fact, that’s why the NOAA Corps was established as a commissioned officer group 100 years ago. If one of the officers is captured by an enemy, they could not be executed as a spy — something their civilian predecessors risked.
The corps operates and maintains much of NOAA’s hardware, including Hurricane Hunter aircraft fisheries ships (but not satellites). They conduct special missions after disasters, such as the 2016 blizzard or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to gather data and provide support. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the corps surveyed the seafloors of New York City and Virginia channels and ports for hazards.
NOAA’s mission covers a lot of territory. The agency is responsible for everything from tornado warnings to climate change monitoring to marine commerce. Former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco says to do this, it needs “sophisticated science and state-of-the-art instruments and platforms” that the NOAA Corps runs and maintains.
“The resulting knowledge and information is the basis of NOAA’s ability to provide accurate navigation charts, forecast the path and intensity of hurricanes, respond to an oil spill, or manage fisheries,” Lubchenco said.
The total cost of all of this is “less than a nickel a day per American,” she added. “That’s quite a bargain in my book.”
The corps’ history can be traced back to the Jefferson administration. As the young nation was getting its footing, Thomas Jefferson signed a bill establishing the “Survey of the Coast,” which charted the country’s coasts and waterways.
It has come a long way since then, now employing nearly 400 officers who oversee a dozen ships and six specialized aircraft, including the Hurricane Hunters. Their mission has expanded well beyond coastal mapping — from flying into hurricanes to surveying fisheries.
As the impacts of climate change and other environmental issues put mounting pressure on society and the economy, the NOAA Corp’s mission will only gain in importance. To meet the future demands, Lubchenco says that NOAA will need the resources to “maintain existing ships and aircraft, build or acquire new, state-of-the art vessels, and recruit, train and employ superb corps officers.”