Military aviation was born sensitive to how weather affects navigation, safety of flight, and tactics. Cloud cover, winds aloft, and even moonlight conditions altered planning for air strikes in all major campaigns of the 20th century. During World War II, commanders considered it vital to know whether airfields—Allied or enemy—and the target area would experience bad weather.
Today’s airmen have an even greater appreciation of weather and its importance to combat operations. Since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a decade of advances has made weather forecasting one of the prime tools for shaping joint operations.
A 1937 decree by the War Department turned over the military’s weather mission to the Army Air Corps. Ten years later, the newly independent US Air Force took over that responsibility.
Over the years, Air Force weather personnel have supported operations of all US armed forces. They were among the first US forces deployed to combat zones in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan.
The Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA), headquartered at Offutt AFB, Neb., has worldwide operations, including two major centers—the Air Force Combat Climatology Center, Asheville, N.C., and Air Force Combat Weather Center, Hurlburt Field, Fla. The North Carolina center analyzes historical weather data to aid military operations and design of weapons systems. The Florida center focuses on developing and employing new tactics, techniques, and technology. Each was a key player in recent combat operations.
Air Force weather personnel also serve under other Air Force units, including Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command, both of which oversee combat weathermen—commando-trained troops who work primarily alongside Army ground forces.
Over the years, the weather mission has shifted from Cold War scenarios to the rapid expeditionary operations. It was not an overnight process and involved advances not only in weather processes but also in weapons.
In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, it took the efforts of almost 500 Air Force weather personnel deployed to the theater to provide the up-to-the-minute forecasts and observations necessary to employ the precision weapons of the time.
Desert Storm was the first campaign of airpower’s precision age, but it was cursed by “the worst weather in 14 years,” Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, then Air Force Chief of Staff, commented at a postwar Pentagon briefing. Clouds and storms interfered with the new infrared targeting pods used to guide laser-designated bombs launched from the F-111, F-117, and a few other aircraft.
The staff of the joint force air component commander (JFACC) needed constant weather updates to make decisions on whether to cancel sorties or push ahead and to decide what type of weapons could be used.
“The decision to load TV-guided Maverick missiles, for instance, depended on the forecast of optical slant ranges,” recounted retired Gen. Charles A. Horner, in his Gulf War memoir written with Tom Clancy. Horner, who was the JFACC for Gulf War I, said the issue was: “Could the pilot see through the haze with his Maverick, so he could lock the missile onto the target?”
In 1999, in Operation Allied Force—the air-only war in the Balkans—the stormy spring weather “just kicked our butts for the first 45 days,” said now-retired Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short during a 1999 PBS interview. Short, who was the operation’s combined force air component commander (CFACC), said many pilots had to return with their bombs. On some nights, most missions were called off because of weather.
Weather was a crucial factor as air strike planners in the combined air operations center (CAOC) calculated how to mitigate collateral damage and how to ensure survivability of the aircrews. Air Force weather personnel, working with the CAOC planners, managed to find gaps in the cloud cover and times to schedule packages of strike aircraft.
Now-retired Brig. Gen. Randall C. Gelwix, the CAOC mission director for Allied Force, viewed the weather windows as critical factors. He defined them as tempting opportunities to shift strike plans to a certain time because “we think the weather is going to be good.”
Still, the Air Force suffered shortfalls in its ability to “locate and attack moving armor and other ground forces in poor weather,” said the USAF lessons-learned report “The Air War Over Serbia: Aerospace Power in Operation Allied Force.”
Weather and Munitions
Four years later, in time for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the situation had changed. The Air Force had a new all-weather weapon in the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and new weather tools.
The arrival of JDAM did not eliminate the need for accurate weather forecasts. Weather data still were vital for other precision weapons and for intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance platforms. “Owning” the weather became more of a reality with the arrival of new computer modeling tools, enhanced high-resolution satellite imagery, and reachback communications. New weather tools greatly enhanced the “degree of sophistication” with which USAF could “numerically model the atmosphere,” said the commander of the Air Force Weather Agency, Col. Charles L. Benson Jr.
At Offutt, huge computers ingest weather observation data from around the world. “We have a suite of IBM supercomputers that run here in the Air Force Weather Agency, and we kick those off four times a day, six hours apart,” said Benson. The models generate forecasts for cloud cover, visibility, wave height, and other factors.
Another significant advance linked weather personnel via the Internet. The Air Force Weather Agency became a Web-based enterprise, as modem connections got faster, with the ability to move information at the unclassified, secret, and sensitive-compartmented-information levels. It became possible, said Benson, for someone with a laptop hooked up to the Internet to get back to AFWA weather products at all three levels of classification. “That’s a fundamental revolution from Desert Storm for the vast majority of the people in the field,” he noted.
With such reachback technology, USAF combat weather teams (CWTs) assigned to Air Force, Army, and special operations forces units could deploy in handfuls and still tap the advanced resources of weather modeling back in the States.
The tactical level CWT—sometimes just one weatherman—could reach back to one of several operational weather squadrons, such as the 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw AFB, S.C., which had the lead for forecasting weather in Southwest Asia. The Internet-provided reachback capability can deliver all available forecasting power on a single deployed location whenever necessary.
The One-Man Shop
That was the experience of TSgt. Dohn Terrell Jr., who deployed to several locations in Southwest Asia as the one-man weather cell for a tanker airlift control element (TALCE) team.
“Being a weather shop of one, I found myself working around the clock and focusing my duties on adverse weather conditions and times of flights,” Terrell later wrote in Observer, the official Air Force weather magazine. Terrell was one of 10 Air Mobility Command weather specialists assigned to TALCEs for Gulf War II. The AMC teams are designed to conduct airfield operations, including communications, maintenance, cargo and passenger handling, and security, where little or no support exists. Each TALCE is a self-sustaining package with about 65 troops.
Terrell took local observations and collaborated with the 28th OWS at Shaw to produce tactical forecasts. The Shaw “hub” helped out by eliminating the need for “access to charts, numerical models, and [satellite] data,” noted Terrell. “They were taking care of the forecast process for me, which enabled me to focus on taking observations and relaying information to the TALCE [command] and aircrews.”
Terrell and the other TALCE members moved several times, setting up operations for fighters and tactical mobility aircraft. In the early days of OIF, Terrell said, he and four others set up operations at H1 airfield in western Iraq after US and British forces had secured the airfield. TALCEs travel light and lean, and that applied to the weather guy, too.
Terrell’s primary tools were a handheld weather tracker, a model output statistics kit, and Iridium satellite telephone. He found he could access defense or commercial telephone networks easily and was “on the phone with them [the 28th OWS] 20 to 30 times a day.”
Reaching back to the forecasting resources was also essential for air operations planners at the Gulf War II CAOC. The CAOC became a major consumer of both long- and short-range forecasts. Accurate weather briefings were cut to fit each of the coalition’s many weapons systems. Icing, turbulence, runway crosswinds, low ceilings, cloud decks, and visibility over the target area might affect a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) far differently than it would a B-52 carrying a bomb bay full of JDAMs.
Weather data became part of the battle rhythm. CAOC staff got updates on current and forecast conditions at the beginning of each of the twice-daily major briefings on operations. Screens continuously displayed current weather conditions. Five-day forecasts outlined upcoming conditions at major bases and over key target areas.
The goal was “to make sure the people who are executing the ATO [air tasking order] are not surprised and they’re able to continue to execute it despite what weather challenges they encounter,” said Lt. Col. Fred Fahlbusch in an Air Force news article on the workings of the CAOC. Fahlbusch was the director of operations for the 28th OWS at Shaw—until he deployed to the CAOC as weather officer.
Each forecast was tailored for specific aircraft, sensors, and weapons guidance systems. “Most systems we have are weather sensitive, so weather predictions must be integrated into the planning at all times,” explained Fahlbusch. In the CAOC, the weather cell was situated “right next to the chief of combat ops,” making inputs “throughout the entire ATO process,” he said.
It was a major step forward. A decade earlier, said Benson, the typical weather briefing for an air operations center might simply have been, “OK, here’s where it’s raining.” Since then, it had evolved “into more of a predictive [process] of trying to anticipate what the impacts of weather are going to be,” he explained. “It’s not ‘where is it raining now,’ but ‘where is the rain going to be in six hours or three hours or 12 hours.’ ” He added, “I think we’re getting pretty good at that.”
Gen. T. Michael Moseley agreed. The Air Force vice chief of staff was the CFACC during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom. After Gulf War II, he told Weather Channel reporters: “The forecasters are almost not in the business of forecasting as much as they are in the business of telling you what’s going to happen. ... The levels of confidence are such that you are able to plan a campaign based on this.”
Two days into the war, on March 22, 2003 (Baghdad time), the five-day forecast detected the first signs of trouble. In weather terms, a major short wave trough and a frontal system were about to converge over Iraq.
The forecast for the next few days was dire. A storm front developing over the Mediterranean would move west to east through parts of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, then begin to push across Iraq. Thunderstorms would form along the storm line. Behind the thunderstorms, strong winds would churn dust from the Saudi Arabian desert into a major sandstorm covering southern and central Iraq and Kuwait.
Coalition forces were spread out on the ground and just entering the pause phase after the first days of their drive into Iraq. The coalition air campaign was ramping up attacks on Iraqi forces. Determining when and how the sandstorm would affect operations was up to Air Force weather personnel both in the theater and back in the US.
One new tool available to track the storm’s impact was new software called Dust Transport Application (DTA). Modified from a NASA model by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, the DTA had only been in use for a little over a year when Gulf War II began. In late February 2003, AFWA had loaded it into the joint Air Force and Army weather information network for theaterwide use. The model combined wind speed, precipitation, and other factors with a dust source database to evaluate the type of dust particles the storm fronts would lift into the atmosphere.
With precise forecasts from the DTA and other atmospheric models, Air Force weather personnel predicted just how bad visibility would be at locations across the combat theater and how long it would take dust to settle out of the atmosphere after the storm systems passed.
SSgt. Julie Moretto was a combat weather airman assigned to the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. On March 25, the big storm hit. “In less than five minutes, it was completely pitch-black, and it was only 4:30 p.m. local time,” Moretto later wrote in Observer. “Then it started to rain. It literally was raining mud.”
At the CAOC, the advance weather forecasts had already led to a quick change in plans. Dust would block out infrared sensors for laser guided weapons that were being heavily used for precision targeting. To compensate, the Air Force shifted over to satellite guided JDAMs, which were largely impervious to the dust.
The air component kept up operations in spite of the sandstorm. Weather briefings provided continual assessments of operating conditions for aircraft ranging from Predators to the high-flying U-2. The CAOC tasked the synthetic aperture radar sensors of platforms like Joint STARS aircraft and Global Hawk UAVs to take up some of the slack during the storm.
Air Force weather forecasters also had a daunting task in finding the right time for the Army’s airdrop at Bashur in northern Iraq. While the sandstorm was sweeping across southern and central Iraq, it was raining hard in the northern areas. The mountainous sections of northern Iraq had more vegetation and did not experience the same fierce dust storms, but bad weather over the drop zone could have interrupted the mission.
The Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade paratroopers, equipment, and more than a dozen USAF C-17s at Aviano AB, Italy, awaited the signal to go. They would have a flight of several hours, followed by a low-level combat jump. It all depended on finding a weather window for nearly a thousand soldiers and several battlefield airmen jumping with them into Bashur.
Special Forces was already on the ground at the bare bones airfield in Iraq. With them was one Air Force weather technician who had the capability to feed local observations back to the Special Operations Forces Weather Operations Center (SOFWOC) at Offutt, where the analysis was done.
SOFWOC technicians developed a five-day forecast. It identified a two-hour window in which the weather would be clear enough for a massive jump.
“We gave them the best forecast possible, based on the information we had available,” said Maj. Dave Wood, who was SOFWOC chief, in an Observer article. With that forecast in hand, the Air Force and Army launched the mission and opened the northern front in Iraq.
AFWA plans to improve integration of weather functions with other aspects of campaign planning and execution. The Air Force is also working to further refine weather tools to make weather forecasting for expeditionary operations even more sophisticated within the next few years.
Also in the works is a new satellite monitoring system known as the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). “That’s going to give us increased ability to measure the atmosphere and give us observational data in remote parts of the world that we don’t have today,” said Benson. “We’ll take that data from NPOESS and ingest it into the models. We think that will definitely help our forecast capability in remote areas like Afghanistan and Iraq.”
How’s the Weather in Space?
Besides the major sandstorm in Iraq during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003 saw another major weather event—a solar weather event. The “weather” in space can affect air and space operations. The solar flare-up occurred last October.
The designated DOD provider for space environment information is the Air Force, and the Air Force Weather Agency runs the Space Weather Operations Center (Space WOC) at Offutt AFB, Neb.
Solar events and atmospheric properties create their own disturbances. A solar event is a perturbation to the sun’s surface or the sun’s mass, which causes the sun to spew out energy that travels through space and disrupts the upper atmosphere and the space environment close to Earth.
The October 2003 solar event was severe enough to affect spacecraft, aircraft, and power grids. NASA issued a flight directive to the International Space Station for astronauts to take precautionary shelter. Aircraft scheduled to fly over the poles had to reroute their missions to avoid the hazard of increased radiation.
Bad weather in space can mess with combat operations, too.
It can disrupt long-distance radio or satellite communications, precision navigation and timing, over-the-horizon or tactical radars, high-altitude manned aerial reconnaissance, orbiting spacecraft and sensors, and space launch.
SMSgt. Richard Conklin, weather training superintendent at Keesler AFB, Miss., explained in an Observer article, that solar flares cause scintillation of GPS satellites, meaning errors will be sent to the munitions.
Scintillation in the ionosphere can also fracture ultrahigh frequency communications to autonomous aerial vehicles like the wide-ranging Global Hawk UAV.
The Space WOC, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has access to a network of solar observational sites that monitor the sun.
Another tool is the Solar X-ray Imager (SXI) which, from a NOAA satellite, can take a full-disk image of the sun’s atmosphere every 60 seconds. That allows observers to pinpoint the longitude of a solar flare and more accurately predict the time of maximum particle radiation. The instrument “will provide the kind of improvements in space weather forecasting that satellite imagery did for tracking hurricanes,” said Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., a retired Navy vice admiral who is now NOAA administrator.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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