Owen Coté, military technology expert and longtime associate director of the Security Studies Program, dies at 63 (2024)

Owen Coté PhD ’96, a principal research scientist with the MIT Security Studies Program (SSP), passed away on June 8 after battling cancer. He joined SSP in 1997 as associate director, a role he held for the rest of his life. He guided the program through the course of three directors — each profiting from his wise counsel, leadership skills, and sense of responsibility.

“Owen was an indomitable scholar and leader of the field of security studies,” says M. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and the director of SSP. “Owen was the heart and soul of SSP and a one-of-a-kind scholar, colleague, and friend. He will be greatly missed by us all.”

Having earned his doctorate in political science at MIT, Coté embodied the program’s professional and scholarly values. Through his research and his teaching, he nurtured three of the program’s core interests — the study of nuclear weapons and strategy, the study of the relationship between technological change and military practice, and the application of organization theory to understanding the behavior of military institutions.

He was the author of“The Third Battle: Innovation in the U.S. Navy’s Silent Cold War Struggle with Soviet Submarines,” a book analyzing the sources of the U.S. Navy’s success in its Cold War antisubmarine warfare effort, and a co-author of“Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy: Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material.” He also wrote on the future of naval doctrine, nuclear force structure issues, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

He was an influential national expert on undersea warfare. According toFord International Professor of Political Science Barry Posen, Coté’s colleague for several decades who served as SSP director from 2006 to 2019, “Owen is credited, among others, with helping the U.S. Navy see the wisdom of transforming four ‘surplus’ Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines into cruise missile platforms that serve the Navy and the country to this day.”

Coté’s principal interest in recent years was maritime “war in three dimensions” — surface, air, and subsurface — and how they interacted and changed with advancing technology.He recently completed a book manuscript on this complex history. At the time of his death, he was also preparing a manuscript that analyzed the sources of innovative military doctrine, using cases that compared U.S. Navy responses to moments in the Cold War when U.S. leaders worried about the vulnerability of land-based missiles to Soviet attack.

“No one in our field was as knowledgeable about military organizations and operations, the politics that drives security policy, and relevant theories of international relations as Owen,” according to Harvey Sapolsky, MITProfessor of Public Policy and Organization, Emeritus, and SSP director from 1989 to 2006. “And no one was more willing to share that knowledge to help others in their work.”

This broad portfolio of expertise served him well as co-editor and ultimately editor of the journal International Security,the longtime flagship journal of the security studies subfield.His colleague and editor-in-chief ofInternational SecuritySteven Miller reflects that, “Owen combined a brilliant analytic mind, a mischievous sense of humor, and a passion for his work. His contribution toInternational Securitywas immense and will be missed, as I relied on his judgement with total confidence.”

Coté believed in sharing his scholarly findings with the policy community. With Cindy Williams, a principal research scientist at SSP, he helped organize and ran a series of national security simulations for military officers and Department of Defense (DoD) civilians in the national security studies program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He regularly produced major conferences at MIT, with several on the U.S. nuclear attack submarine force perhaps the most influential.

He was passionate about nurturing younger scholars. In recent years, he led programs for visiting fellows at SSP: the Nuclear Security Fellows Program and the Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Fellows Program.

Caitlin Talmage PhD ’11, one of his former students and now an associate professor of political science at MIT, describes Coté as "a devoted mentor and teacher. His classes sparked many dissertations, and he engaged deeply with students and their research, providing detailed feedback, often over steak dinners. Despite his towering expertise in the field of security studies, Owen was always patient, generous, and respectful toward his students. He continued to advise many even after graduation as they launched their careers, myself included. He will be profoundly missed.”

Phil Haun PhD ’10, also one of Coté’s students and nowprofessor and director of the Rosenberg Deterrence Institute at the Naval War College, describes Coté as “a mentor, colleague, and friend to a generation of MIT SSP graduate students,” noting that “arguably his greatest achievement and legacy are the scholars he nurtured and loved.”

As Haun notes, “Owen’s expertise, with a near encyclopedic knowledge of innovations in military technology, coupled with a gregarious personality and willingness to share his time and talent, attracted dozens of students to join in a journey to study important issues of international security. Owen’s passion for his work and his eagerness to share a meal and a drink with those with similar interests encouraged those around him. The degree to which so many MIT SSP alums have remained connected to the program is testament to the caring community of scholars that Owen helped create.”

Posen describes Cotéas a “larger-than-life figure and the most courageous and determined human being I have ever met.He could light up a room when he was among people he liked, and he liked most people.He was in the office suite nearly every day of the week, including weekends, and his door was usually open.Professors, fellows, and graduate students would drop by to seek his counsel on issues of every kind, and it was not uncommon for an expected 10-minute interlude to turn into a one-hour seminar.He had a truly unique ability to understand the interaction of technology and military operations.I have never met anyone who could match him in this ability. He also knew how to really enjoy life. It is an incredible loss on many, many levels.”

As Miller notes, “I got to know Owen while serving as supervisor of his senior thesis at Harvard College in 1981–82. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and happily our careers remained entangled for the remainder of his life. I will miss the wonderful, decent human being, the dear friend, the warm and committed colleague. He was a brave soul, suffering much, overcoming much, and contributing much. It is deeply painful to lose such a friend.”

“Owen was kind and generous, and though he endured much, he never complained,” says Sapolsky. “He gave wonderfully organized and insightful talks, improved the writing of others with his editing, and always gave sound advice to those who were wise enough to seek it.”

After graduating from Harvard College in 1982 and before returning to graduate school, Coté worked at the Hudson Institute and the Center for Naval Analyses. He received his PhD in 1996 from MIT, where he specialized in U.S. defense policy and international security affairs.

Before joining SSP in 1997, he served as assistant director of the International Security Program at Harvard's Center for Science and International Affairs (now the Belfer Center).

He was the son of Ann F. Coté and the late Owen R. Coté Sr. His family wrote in hisobituarythat at home, he was always up for a good discussion aboutStar WarsorHarry Pottermovies. Motorcycle magazines were a lifelong passion. He was a devoted uncle to his nieces Eliza Coté, Sofia Coté, and Livia Coté, as well as his self-proclaimed “fake” niece and nephew, Sam and Nina Harrison.

In addition to his mother and his nieces, he is survived by his siblings: Mark T. Coté of Blacksburg, Virginia; Peter H. Coté and his wife Nina of Topsfield, Massachusetts; and Suzanne Coté Curtiss and her husband Robin of Cape Neddick, Maine.

Owen Coté, military technology expert and longtime associate director of the Security Studies Program, dies at 63 (2024)
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