Air Force Weather Transformation questions answered

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  • By Weather Resources and Programs Division
  • A3O-W
Why are we transforming?

Transformation has been the buzzword of change in the Department of Defense and the military for some time. Although transformational efforts began before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the resulting Global War on Terrorism brought a new sense of urgency to the effort. This urgency has increased emphasis on joint operations; integrated command and control systems, machine- to-machine information transfers; net-centric operations; training on-battlefield skills; and many other areas. Recently announced Air Force manning and budget cuts designed to finance force modernization have also increased the need to implement transformational initiatives.

The Air Force weather community is an integral part of Air Force transformation as weather information becomes more relevant and vital to operations planning and execution with improvements in forecast models and battlespace sensing. As the military transforms the way they conduct operations, Air Force weather operations will transform in response to the changing operations environment. The need for weather operations transformation is clearly outlined in DoD, Air Force, and Army transformational guidance, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Air Force Concepts of Operations and Army Future Combat Force guidance. AFW transformation will address fundamental questions that arise from the changes DoD and the Air Force is implementing: 

What is the best way to digitally integrate environmental information into joint mission planning and execution systems and enhance the decision superiority of command authorities?

How does Air Force weather provide decision-makers with consistent weather information that automatically identifies environmental limitations when/where needed - available in less than ten minutes for time-sensitive targets?

How do weather professionals provide decision-makers with a consistent near real-time picture of the battlespace (weather on the Common Operational Picture)?

How do weather forces provide weather capabilities within resource allocations?

How can Air Force weather units exploit technology and improve processes, gain efficiencies, and maximize mission effectiveness?

What are the acceptable risks necessary to increase efficiency or save resources?

Clearly, these are very tough questions with no easy answers. Fortunately, over the past few years the Air Force weather leadership has developed a plan - Air Force Weather Transformation - to transition weather operations to meet tomorrow's fast-paced, automated, machine-to-machine, net-centric battlespace environment.

Additionally, the Air Force weather community has been working with our sister services through the Joint Meteorological and Oceanographic Board and other initiatives to ensure consistency of effort between Services. Consistency of effort extends beyond the DoD to other government agencies through initiatives such as the Next Generation Air Transportation System's Joint Program Development Office and the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. The Next Generation Air Transportation System is a congressionally mandated initiative that seeks to improve the efficiency of the United States air traffic system of which the DoD is an integral participant. Operating in a net-centric world provides an opportunity to implement a consistent United States government environmental "worldwide national datacube." The goal is for all government environmental stakeholders - Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Department of Transportation, Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Aviation Administration - to use this environmental datacube. Ultimately, the goal is for the DoD to contribute to the population of this datacube and exploit it for all military operations. Finally, Air Force Weather has to consider how to work with coalition partners in this new environment.

What is the plan?

To meet all these requirements and objectives for the future, Air Force weather leaders have developed a deliberate plan that leverages numerical weather model improvements, ensemble forecasting techniques, Operational Risk Management techniques, technological advancements, and machine-to-machine processes, known as M2M, to transform the way Air Force weather will do business in the 21st century. The plan fundamentally alters the forecast process we all have grown to embrace and the way environmental information is integrated and exploited in Air Force, Army, and joint mission planning and execution.

The goal is to effectively and efficiently characterize the environment in order to deliver timely, relevant, accurate and consistent environmental information, also known as "TRAC", to C2 systems. Providing on "TRAC" weather information to decision-makers provides new capabilities that will enhance operational effectiveness, efficiency, and safety while operating in a net-centric battlefield environment.

Successful execution of the plan will affect Air Force weather force employment, manpower, funding priorities, system development and procurement, policy development, training, data sensing strategies, testing and evaluation, etc. Air Force Weather will implement the plan deliberately across all strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare with the most significant changes taking place through process changes at the operational and tactical levels.

Under the transformation plan, numerical weather models become the "center of gravity." Culturally, this represents the beginning of a shift away from current processes where forecasters rely heavily on the 'art' of meteorology to develop forecast products. In the end state, forecasters will still "quality control" model data, primarily in the first 24 hours of the forecast period and issue Weather Warnings and Advisories. Forecasts beyond 24 hours will mainly be automated, with M2M weather inputs integrated directly into C2 systems.

In the future, Air Force weather will utilize new modeling techniques such as ensembling of numerical predication models to assist in institutionalizing Air Force-wide ORM techniques similar to those currently being used in the Tanker Airlift Control Center. Air Force weather will test ensemble forecast processes and techniques in Pacific Air Forces in 2007/2008. Ultimately, ensemble model output will include forecast solution data ranges, confidence intervals, and probability data - stochastic data for use by forecasters and for direct integration into tactical (Wing) and operational Air and Space Operations Center, C2 systems for mission planning and Air Tasking Order development activities. The goal is to have operator-defined automated business rules evaluate the ensemble stochastic data against acceptable risk levels and mission-limiting environmental thresholds to provide decision-makers with the integrated on-demand digital environmental data necessary to exploit environmental advantages or mitigate impacts. Weather forecasters at weather flights/detachments and operational mission centers will offer advice and courses of action to decision-makers to mitigate environmental risks and maximize operational effectiveness for every mission the C2 system identifies as "at-risk" or ensemble forecast confidence is low.

Under the new paradigm, OWS forecasters will focus their technical skills and talents on characterizing and exploiting environmental data when model confidence is low and operations are being impacted by the weather. They will provide "forecaster-in-the-loop" to help minimize the impact to operations. In many cases, this will equate to focusing efforts on high-visibility or high-risk mission areas where ensemble model confidence is low, and/or the weather threat is too serious to leave to automation.

Does this mean weather forecasters will become obsolete model readers? Absolutely not! Under transformation, forecasters will continue to be the backbone of the weather community. These new processes merely maximize how efficiently and effectively the weather community marries our forecaster's skills and talents to operational priorities. In the future, instead of producing graphic or alphanumeric products that are not digitally integrated into mission planning and C2 systems, forecasters will now have the ability to "quality control" and save select derived environmental data gridded fields for example, turbulence, icing, thunderstorms, to the virtual net-centric environmental datacube. Forecasters will use ORM and ensemble model data to determine if an OWS forecaster is needed to manipulate derived environmental parameters. OWSs will have visibility on all missions flying in their AOR, allowing them to focus resources on areas where weather truly impacts operations.

Decision-makers and communities of interest such as tankers, fighters, and bombers will access the datacube through the global information grid, or GIG to get a single consistent forecast, a key component of net-centric operations.

There is really no alternative for the future. The M2M pace of operations necessitates a major shift away from operators and forecasters using graphics and alphanumeric based products to identify environmental impacts. Rather than interpreting environmental information from a suite of non-interrogatable graphical and alphanumeric forecast products, decision-makers will primarily use automated processes to pull or discover information or build products-on-demand from the datacube - from long range planning, through mission execution, to post-mission analysis.

Furthermore, transformation seeks to develop and integrate automated business rules that interact with the gridded data to rapidly and consistently identify mission-limiting environmental effects that cross user-defined thresholds or acceptable operator-defined risk levels. Under this construct, every mission will automatically receive the careful weather scrutiny desired to avoid unanticipated impacts to mission execution.

This increased awareness of environmental impacts will, in turn, result in weather forces becoming a key "environmental consultant" as operators are consistently prompted to consider alternatives for mitigating environmental effects to friendly force operations while simultaneously exploiting environmental impacts on enemy forces. In this regard, transformation of weather operations will ultimately result in an increased emphasis on weather personnel at weather flights/detachments and AOC specialty teams understanding the art of war and how environmental factors impact our nation's ability to wage war - strategically, operationally, and tactically.

The key to successfully implementing transformation and realizing the mission effectiveness and operations efficiency gains desired, is to apply consistent, repeatable processes in the tactical and operational mission centers. Automated integration processes will maximize the exploitation of environmental data, minimizing the amount of pertinent environmental information that is currently 'dropped on the floor' due to data overload that humans cannot possibly incorporate into decision-making. Studies have shown that when viewing the meteorology community as a whole, the human adds little forecast value beyond 24 hours and implementing consistent, automated processes based on clearly defined and repeatable business rules will realize huge benefits. Over the long haul, there will be a greater dependency on automated processes, especially beyond 24 hours, when models routinely outperform the human. Additionally, automated integration processes will maximize the exploitation of environmental data minimizing the amount of pertinent environmental information that is currently 'dropped on the floor' due to data overload that humans cannot possibly incorporate into decision-making.

There are recognized limitations to this approach and the Air Force weather transformation plan accounts for these limitations. Theater sensing and numerical model capabilities will determine the amount of automation and the level of risk management techniques used to characterize the environment and exploit environmental capabilities. Theaters with robust, net-centric sensing capabilities and better model physics will benefit from the efficiencies and effectiveness gained through greater reliance on automation and robust ORM techniques. In data denied battlespace areas, and/or in areas where modeling is not as advanced and minimal net-centric capabilities exist, ORM techniques will require greater human involvement. Therefore, the efficiencies gained and resulting decrease in human workload will be theater specific. However, a positive aspect of transforming to the new way of doing business is that the Air Force will use similar processes across the spectrum of warfare and that no matter where specific battlespace operations occur, as sensing capabilities, model accuracy and model algorithms improve, the amount of human involvement in ORM processes will gradually decrease over time without any new changes in basic processes. Additionally, using similar process will also produce training efficiencies - shorter spin-up times when transferring between theaters or between a weather flight/detachment or AOC.

In effect, as technology advances over time, manpower will move from "quality controlling" gridded data, to characterizing the environment and exploiting environmental information. As greater efficiencies are gained at OWSs, more forecasters will act at the tactical and operational levels as an "environmental consultant." Processes for future "consultants" at the weather flights/detachments and AOCs will become identical in the M2M era as tactical mission planning systems also automatically integrate digital weather data.

At this time, other than the organizational re-alignments associated with the Air Force Warfighting Headquarters initiative and the re-alignments associated with Army Transformation, there are no plans to change the organizational structure of weather forces. There will be OWS consolidations in the future. Current plans call for the consolidation of the 11th into the 17th OWS at Hickam. In the OWSs, the processes for producing Terminal Aerodrome Forecasts, hazard products, Weather Warnings, and Weather Advisories will change significantly - over time we will move to an environment where models will generate first-guess TAFs, hazard charts, WWs and WAs. Eventually, terminal aerodrome environmental information may get derived directly from the datacube. There are no plans to change the look and feel of the TAF in the foreseeable future to remain consistent with international standards.

How will the plan be implemented?

Through 2015, forecast processes, training, and operating concepts will gradually change in phases as new technological capabilities are fielded. Air Force weather leadership will carefully monitor the anticipated delivery of new capabilities and proceed to the next phase when there is high confidence of timely fielding. This will require making best guess estimates of fielding dates 12-18 months before actual fielding to allow time to write new techniques, tactics and procedures and implement new training and policy. Changes will also affect the schoolhouse. It is recognized that fielding delays will occur impeding plans. Air Force weather leadership will make an effort to minimize turbulence to the field.

The first phase of transformation focuses on implementing institutional use of ORM. Most Air Force members are familiar with ORM, the process used to evaluate the risks involved with performing certain actions. The weather community will use ORM to decide where weather personnel should apply their skills and experience. Initially, weather flights/detachments will use ORM to take advantage of benign weather days relying on un-augmented observations so they can conduct training on tactical equipment or gain a better understanding of how weather impacts operations. The ORM in this example is assessing the weather for the day as benign and allowing the sensing system to run in automated mode. In this example, even if an erroneous data element entered the datacube, there would be no risk to life, property, or missions.

The second transformation phase, in mid-2007, will focus on fielding the new Joint Environmental Toolkit, or JET, replacing the New-Tactical Forecast System and Operational Weather Squadron Production System II. In this phase, JET will simplify product development, especially at the weather flight/detachment level, and allow for the integration of forecaster developed products directly into C2 systems. Eventually JET, coupled with Air Force Weather Agency's Weather Data Analysis System and Ensemble Forecast System, will provide robust M2M integration, ingestion of sensor data, automated product build, first-guess product generation, automated product development from the datacube, and the ability for forecasters to manipulate and save digital environmental data to the datacube. The JET development contract award was in April 2006. Fielding of JET Increment 1.0 is scheduled for Fiscal Year 2007. JET development and field-implementation will occur in incremental spirals, providing the Air Force weather community with the flexibility to ensure the system meets future operational requirements. JET increment 4.0 fielding will be in Fiscal Year 2013. Each increment of JET will parallel another phase of Air Force Weather transformation.

The third phase of transformation will coincide with the delivery of the second increment of JET and the delivery of ensemble capability in the Continental United States in the 2009 timeframe. In this phase, forecasters will begin "quality-controlling" select model derived parameters before it enters the datacube. In this phase, the OWS will focus personnel and quality control efforts on areas of forecast uncertainty and/or on a current or forecast weather threat that is critical to operations or safety.

The ability of weather forces to apply ORM techniques will improve once ensemble model data and operational ensemble products become more robust during the final phases of transformation in the 2011-2013 timeframe. These phases will include the running of ensembles for overseas theaters, increased automation for notifying weather personnel when operator-defined mission-limiting environmental thresholds are met and automated decision rules in mission systems. Air Force Weather Transformation is relying on numerical weather prediction and ensemble techniques that look promising and are currently being refined and operationally tested by the Air Force Weather Agency. Ensemble forecasting uses several different models and/or perturbations of the same models to identify areas where model solutions converge and diverge. Convergence indicates strong model agreement or more confidence in the model data. Divergence indicates disagreements between the models. Ensemble data is ideally suited for use with ORM techniques because it provides objective data for consistently determining risk to operations. Additionally, ensemble data will continuously update the environmental datacube to support future M2M operations and seamlessly integrate environmental data into mission planning, execution, and into Command and Control systems. Ensemble testing will be complete in Fiscal Year 2008.

In short, Air Force Weather Transformation is coming, and poised to set our course for the future. This transformational endeavor is challenging and will not be easy - no large-scale change ever is. However, it is imperative that we all work together to transform as deliberately and thoughtfully as possible to enhance our nations' warfighting capabilities. By taking the correct course now, the Air Force weather community is on "TRAC" to provide vital weather capabilities for current and future operations.