Air Force Weather Specialists Provide Combat Multiplier
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2001 Nature's meteorological whims can disrupt picnics and athletic events. In military operations, accurate weather predictions can mean the difference between success or failure -- and life or death.
"Weather is very important at all levels of military operations, from the commander all the way down to the guy who is out in the field feeling that wind chill," said Air Force Brig. Gen. D.L. Johnson, director of Air Force weather operations.
Accurate forecasting by military meteorologists "provides situational awareness for the commander," said Johnson, a C-130 pilot who flew humanitarian support missions over Bosnia from 1993 to 1995. Air Force weather specialists, he noted, also support the Army. The Navy and Marine Corps have their own weather assets.
Battlefield commanders want as much information as possible -- including weather forecasts -- in order to make wise and timely military decisions, Johnson noted.
Air Force weather specialists use high-tech computers in tandem with satellites, he said. The satellites provide forecasters timely weather information, he noted, while advanced software enables "much more accurate depictions" of what the weather will be. This technology doesn't come cheap, Johnson said.
"I would love to be able to afford to have one of those supercomputers at every single base (and) at every single deployed location, but I just can't afford it," he explained. Therefore, he noted, computer support is provided via a centralized, hub-type network.
For example, Johnson said, computer support for U.S. military weather operations in Afghanistan is provided through an Air Force facility on the U.S. East Coast.
"By using the satellite and using the observations in the area of responsibility, we're able to do a pretty good job of depicting the (weather) environment for that battlefield commander," he noted.
The varied geography of Afghanistan poses challenges and opportunities related to weather prediction operations, Johnson noted.
"Large chunks of it are desert, about 1,000 feet above sea level. Significant portions are (mountainous and) above 10,000 feet," he explained.
Although today's Global Positioning System-guided missiles and bombs aren't too affected by cloud cover and temperature, Johnson noted, weather is still important to "an Army guy or a helicopter that's trying to hover at 12,000 feet in a dusty situation."
Johnson noted that today's Air Force combat weather teams, including airborne-trained personnel, deploy with units in military operations around the world. Without going into specifics, he said, a lot of Air Force weather experts have deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
While Air Force weather specialists excel at providing earthly weather forecasts, space weather is becoming increasingly important, too, Johnson said.
"How does space weather affect your operations? If you wanted to communicate and send signals through the ionosphere using a high-frequency or ultra-high-frequency satellite communications radio, space weather is very important," he explained.
"If you wanted to use a Global Positioning System and figure out where you are, space weather is extremely important to you," he added.
Satellites and supercomputers are enabling weather forecasters -- civilian and military -- to achieve more accurate results, Johnson noted.
"And we're getting down to the point now where we're looking at micro-climates: trying to anticipate if the east end of the valley will be in the fog or if the north end of the bridge in the east end of the valley will be in fog, or not," he said.
Doppler radar is a significant tool in the Air Force weather arsenal, Johnson continued. Out of the 121 Doppler radars operated by the United States, the Air Force operates 21 stateside and five overseas, he noted.
Doppler enables forecasters to locate the storm, but also to follow the movements of wind and the storm, Johnson noted. Doppler, in conjunction with conventional radars, "is just absolutely invaluable," he added.
As satellites, advanced radars and supercomputers enable weather forecasters to become more efficient, technology can also be used to "control" some aspects of the weather, Johnson noted.
A U.N. resolution prohibits countries from modifying the weather, although the United States has the capability to seed clouds, dissipate fog "and those kinds of things," Johnson explained. "That's very strictly regulated only for humanitarian operations."