Battlefield weather forecasters key to mission success

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Eric Burks
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs
Throughout history, countless military battles and campaigns have been impacted by the weather.

From Hannibal and Genghis Khan to Napoleon and George Washington, military leaders who pay attention to weather events and patterns typically fare better than those who ignore them.

Modern missions in Afghanistan are no different, as weather conditions play a role in essentially all military operations.

As the country's climate and terrain provide a dynamic environment of constantly changing conditions, it's up to the battlefield weather forecasters of the 19th Expeditionary Weather Squadron, headquartered at Bagram Airfield, to provide timely and accurate forecasts to decision-makers at every level.

"Our unit provides actionable weather options to all U.S. Army forces here in Afghanistan to enable their missions," said Lt. Col. Patrick Williams, 19th EWXS commander.

To provide that support, battlefield weather forecasters are embedded as Staff Weather Officers at forward operating bases across Afghanistan. By the end of this year, Williams said, SWO teams will be working with the Army at 15 FOBs throughout the country.

It's the job of these Airmen not just to observe conditions and forecast the weather, but to get the forecast right.

Staff Sgt. Logan English, a SWO at FOB Fenty in the eastern Nangahar province, said troops deal with weather all the time whether they think about it or not. "My job is to ensure brigade can accomplish the mission and exploit weather conditions."

When it comes to air operations, he said, weather conditions are a "go/no go" in determining if a sortie can be launched. Low visibility, storms, and strong winds are just a few examples that can limit which air assets are available to support ground operations.

"I'm here to protect Soldiers on the ground and ensure they have equipment needed, using weather," he said. "When they need elements like surveillance, medical evacuation, or close combat air support, I need to make sure they get them."

"We're constantly evaluating conditions and our expertise is needed in the Tactical Operations Center and planning sections to ensure we don't send people out into bad situations," English said. "That's how important it is for us to be correct every single time."

Working directly in the TOCs also helped forge a stronger relationship between battlefield weather forecasters and the Soldiers they support, he said.

"Because I'm here, and they can see I care about them, they trust me with major decisions."

With that level of trust comes a great deal of responsibility -at the brigade level, English assess weather conditions over an 11,000 square mile coverage area for the task force. Much of that is comprised of mountain areas; typically a much more dynamic weather environment than flat terrain. There are just six ground weather sensors in the area to cover a land mass the size of Maryland, he said - and that's not always where operations are being conducted.

"I may not be pulling the trigger, I may not be dropping the bomb," English said, "but I'm responsible to an extent for every Soldier out there. I either need to make sure that they're going to have the [necessary] asset or that they're not in an area where they need that asset but don't have it."

In addition to their work in the TOC, battlefield weather forecasters also maintain and troubleshoot the weather sensors, which are often outside the wire at remote locations. Staff Sgt. Christopher Combs, a SWO at FOB Shindand in the western Herat province, said teams travel two or three times a month to maintain equipment.

"The process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours," he said, "And we might travel up to 300-miles, round trip, to check the equipment.

At FOB Shank in the Logar province, Tech. Sgt. Omar Nurse, a SWO assigned to Task Force Eagle, said serving as a battlefield forecaster is challenging, but it's also a very rewarding job.

"We're very integrated in every single flying operation here and surrounding areas," he said. "Our main mission is to get accurate data not only for here, but for any place that they could be going, and make sure that they are routed around anything that might hinder their flight, and that when they get to where they're going they have the right kind of weather to accomplish their mission."

"Working hand in hand with them, knowing that they depend on me for every mission that they do," Nurse said, "it's a great feeling."

"Weather plays an integral part in everything that we do in the planning of our missions,"
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Chuck Rambo, Task Force Eagle assault commander at Shank, said. "There's some weather we just can't fly in. The weather team attached to us does a phenomenal job in helping us stay ahead of that."

Their ability to see the environment and the impacts of weather on our operations saves lives, Rambo said.

That capacity is never more evident than during medical evacuation requests, Staff Sgt. Mary Henderson, a SWO for Task Force Hammerhead at Kandahar Airfield, said.

When there's a request for a medevac they move very quickly to get a weather assessment and let them know if a flight can go out, she said.

"When someone is out there injured a few minutes can be the difference between life and death," Henderson added.

"It feels good knowing you're there to support those in need and help save lives out there," she said. "And it's a big responsibility."

Williams said he's proud of his battlefield weather forecasters, especially when their quick thinking and actions are what makes the difference.

"They're finding the weather window to allow these missions to go," the colonel said.

One example was a situation where two little girls in a village were injured, he said. There were thunderstorms in the area that were preventing a medevac mission there to go. The forecaster, thinking on his feet, knew that was happening and contacted the SWO at a different location where a medevac flight was ready to go.

"Between those two," Williams said, "they talked about it and found a weather window where the thunderstorms were going to subside for just the right amount of time."

They talked to the battle captain and immediately launched the medevac mission, he said. The two girls were picked up and taken to medical care, which saved their lives.

"It's important to me because I have two little girls, Shannon and Victoria." Williams said. "As a father, I'd be extremely grateful and thankful to whomever it was that saved my two little girls."

These Airmen are making recommendations to the Army to go out and perform deliberate operations that will affect parts of Afghanistan, he said.

"They have a very important and unique role in Afghanistan," Williams said, "but what we do here could not be done without the help of the Air Force weather community back home, from the 28th Operational Weather Squadron to the Air Force Weather Agency to the Director of Weather, Dr. Fred Lewis, and his staff at the Pentagon. This is certainly a team effort all the way."