The fog of war

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ryan J. Harris
  • 52 OSS/OSW
Fog is certainly not the most glamorous of weather topics. Unlike the media-drenched coverage of natural disasters like hurricanes crashing against our coastlines, tornadic outbreaks ravaging the Great Plains, or massive winter storms dumping snow and ice, this type of "extreme" weather will often go unreported. Bring up fog to those involved in military operations, and they'll be the first to cringe and tell you it's a phenomenon that deserves just as much attention.

Carl von Clausewitz, in his classic philosophical work On War, described the "fog of war" as those intangible things that obscure clear thought processes and limit a commander's handling of the battlefield. Who better to make this analogy in the 1800's than Clausewitz, living in a part of Germany some consider the fog capital of the world. Military commanders in nearly all theaters of the globe often deal with the tangible type of fog that hinders their operational timelines. Fighter squadrons at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, set deep in the fog-prone Eifel Region of southwestern Germany, know full-well the impacts of this beast and plan for a 15-30 percent sortie attrition rate due to imminent fog and low clouds during the fall, winter and early spring months.
"We have a limited number of Operational and Maintenance days that we can fly here in central Europe," states Lt Col. Daniel "Digger" Hawkins, Director of Operations for the 81st Fighter Squadron. He says that with additional predetermined obstacles like "flying hour restrictions, the fixed number of pilots, jets, and turn times between sorties...any attrition negatively affects our flying training, as it is nearly impossible to add sorties in to make up for the losses."

Historically, fog has been a significant player in deciding the fate or timing of battles. In the days leading up to the historic D-Day Invasion, Army Air Corps, Naval, and British weather forecasters wrangled with the timing of when the fog and low clouds, among other weather thresholds, would begin to clear off in order for pre-invasion bombing missions to see their coastal targets. Pilots and artillery units during the bitter cold winter of 1944-45 continued to cope with target obscuration due to foggy conditions as they marched toward Germany. The most successful fog forecasts these days still include using rudimentary, yet accurate World War II era processes like Rules of Thumb, Forecast Reference Notebooks, and good ol' Conditional Climatology Tables. Forecasting fog has improved somewhat since those days, thanks mostly to vast technological advances in numerical modeling, but it still remains quite a challenge.
Four straight days of fog with one-half mile visibility or less at Spangdahlem earlier this year stopped all flying operations, including airlift missions supporting the Global War on Terror. Hundreds of fighter sorties were cancelled, and all in-bound Air Mobility Command aircraft were forced to divert to other locations. If mission-halting fog were to set in with sorties already airborne, Spangdahlem's A-10 and F-16 squadrons plan to spend anywhere from $1,000-3,000 per diverted aircraft and much more if nearby Ramstein AB is unavailable. Additionally, almost half of all of AMC's annual delays attributable to weather - globally, can be blamed on poor take-off and landing conditions, including thick fog.

In the 1960's, Major Thomas A. Studer claimed, "Reduced visibility in airfield-approach zones and over tactical battle areas interferes far more with Air Force operations than does turbulence, hail, or other commonly recognized hazards to flight; and reduced visibility outranks winds and high seas as a hindrance to naval operations." Forecasting fog is a serious business, monetarily and, more importantly, in the light of keeping our fellow comrades in arms safe in such adverse conditions.

So, break out those Conditional Climatology tables and brush up on local Forecast Reference Notebooks...'tis the season yet again for weather forecasters' war on the beast known as fog.