Combat weather teams key in mission planning

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
When reporters describe the successes of the air war on terrorism, they frequently speak of special operations forces using global positioning system receivers and radios to direct laser-guided bombs to their targets.

These stories are accurate and make for good video, but they only touch the surface of what makes these missions successful. Oftentimes, when stripped down, mission accomplishment can be traced to an accurate weather forecast.

According to Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of weather operations at the Pentagon, input from the combat weather team is a vital part of the mission planning process.

"In the first three months of (the war on terrorism)," Johnson said, "15 percent of the targets ... and 30 percent of the weapons were changed as a result of what the weatherman said."

Mission planning normally begins 48 to 72 hours prior to mission takeoff, Johnson said. During that time, combat weather team members advise aircrews on the environment they can expect. Armed with that information, crews can determine the best weapons and tactics to employ.

For example, Johnson said the angle of the sun can determine a pilot's axis of attack, and temperature differentials between the target and the background are key factors when using infrared-guided weapons.

During the first three months of the air war in Afghanistan, combat weather team members recorded a forecast accuracy rate of 90 percent for strike aircraft; 91 percent for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; and 98 percent each for bombers, tankers and other aircraft.

"What this tells you is that weather -- environmental situational awareness -- is fully integrated in the coalition air operations center, from planning all the way through mission execution," Johnson said.

"Not only were we engaged in the process, we were accurate in the process," he said. "It says we're being listened to."

And not only are commanders, planners and operators listening to the combat weather team regarding the terrestrial environment, but space weather as well.

According to Johnson, large solar flares called mass coronal ejections emit electromagnetic radiation that can cause high-frequency radio blackouts, interfere with satellite communications and may even lead to satellite orbit decay. In some cases, he said, the solar energy can limit radar performance and degrade single frequency GPS accuracy.

On the upside, the general said the Air Force has developed algorithms to calculate how much solar flare energy is headed toward Earth.

"Space weather is not just (for) operating satellites," Johnson said. "It's for people flying airplanes and for (special operations forces) riding on horseback looking for the (targets). It's for people who communicate on radios, propagate a radar beam or navigate using single frequency GPS."

To that end, pre-mission weather briefings contain both terrestrial and space weather information.

"There are pretty extensive environmental influences in mission planning, and we're integrated members of the team," Johnson said. "That's what we bring to the fight -- environmental situational awareness for the warfighter."