Battlefield Weather - Forecasting mission success

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Eric Burks
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs
Weather has had an impact on key military battles and campaigns throughout history. Military leaders who took weather events and patterns into account before a battle typically fared better than those who ignored them.

Napoleon invaded Russia with an ill-equipped force, and the Russian winter of 1812 stopped his Grand Armee's attack, losing half of his troops in the process. During World War II, Hitler was so confident of his invasion of Russia, he didn't even prepare for the possibility of the brutal winter's effect on combat. His army lost almost 25 percent of its average strength during the first five months of the invasion, including 700,000 by the end of 1941.

But Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower listened to his weather forecasters. He delayed the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II, waiting for better weather. When the weather cleared enough, the Allies pulled off the biggest invasion in history, which led to the eventual Allied victory in Europe.

In today's battlefields in Afghanistan, weather continues to influence military operations. The country's rugged terrain and ever-changing climate conditions provide a dynamic environment for weather forecasters. So decision makers at all levels rely on Airmen at the 19th Expeditionary Weather Squadron at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, for timely and accurate forecasts.

Squadron battlefield weather forecasters "provide actionable weather options" to Army and coalition forces that help "enable their missions," said Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Patrick Williams. Forward operating bases, or FOBs, across Afghanistan have embedded staff weather officers, or SWOs, from the squadron. Weather teams are working at 15 forward bases.

Weather Airmen observe and project weather patterns; lives could depend on their predictions, so getting it right is a tall order.

Forecasters like Staff Sgt. Logan English, a SWO stationed 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 the brigade can accomplish the mission and exploit weather conditions," he said.

Tough training

Doing this mission takes a lot of training, like the kind weather Airmen receive at the vast National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., before deploying to Afghanistan. Forecasters learn to integrate into Army units and operations -- from planning to execution.

Tech Sgt. Rick Lawson, a battlefield weather observer/controller and trainer with the 12th Combat Training Squadron at the center, said weather Airmen arrive for training knowing the individual pieces of the job.

"They just don't have the experience of putting it all together, since some of them haven't deployed or worked with the Army before," he said.

The training squadron readies Air Force weather teams, tactical air control parties and brigade combat teams to execute decisive, worldwide multispectral combat operations. Trainers do this during Green Flag exercises 10 times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and the NTC. Friendly and enemy ground forces pit about 400 armored and support vehicles and more than 4,500 Soldiers against each other in dynamic and unscripted battle exercises.

"It's tough ... a very challenging environment," said Senior Airman Michael Richardson, of the 3rd Weather Squadron at Fort Riley, Kan. For more than a week, the Airmen trained inside "The Box," the 1,000 square-mile desert area troops used for maneuver and range training at the training center, he said.

The live-fire training is as realistic as possible. Trainees live in tents under the constant threat of simulated attacks, with temperatures sometimes dropping to freezing at night.

While the Afghanistan-like conditions are rough, it's worth it because "Airmen get plenty of exposure to the Soldiers they'll work with," Richardson said. "You can't get more realistic training than here."

Lawson keeps a close eye on how the Airmen conduct operations. He shadows them as they go about their jobs. The main thing trainees need to understand is how to translate weather information into the Army's operations, Richardson said.

"We know the impact of weather to aviation, infantry and armor units," Lawson said. "It's important that they tailor their briefings to the units that they support." Because, he said, "How well you do your job downrange sometimes depends on the new things you learn at NTC." But the tough training, he continued, ensures weather Airmen will know how to operate with Soldiers before they depart for Afghanistan.

'Go or no-go'

English went through the NTC training before his Afghanistan deployment. He applies what he learned because he works daily with Soldiers. Many of the missions he supports involve air operations, and when it comes to air operations, "weather conditions determine whether launching a sortie is a 'go or no-go,'" he said.

Afghanistan provides plenty of varied weather to make a mission a no-go. Low visibility, storms and strong winds are just a few conditions that limit the air assets available to support ground operations. "I'm here to protect Soldiers on the ground and ensure they have the equipment needed, using weather," he said.

When Soldiers need surveillance, medical evacuation, or close combat air support, English said he must ensure to meet the troops' needs.

"We're constantly evaluating conditions and our expertise is needed in the tactical operations center (TOC) and planning sections to ensure we don't send people out into bad situations," he said.

Forecasters must be correct "every single time," English said. "Working directly in the TOCs also helped forge a stronger relationship between battlefield weather forecasters and the Soldiers they support. 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, especially 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 that, typically, have a much more dynamic weather environment than flat terrain.

There are just six ground weather sensors in the area to cover a landmass the size of Maryland, he said. "And they're not always where operations are being conducted," English said. "I may not be pulling the trigger, and I may not be dropping the bombs, 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 operations center, 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," Combs said. "And we might travel up to 300 miles, round trip, to check equipment.

The customers appreciate the weather team's efforts.

"Weather plays an integral part in everything that we do in the planning of our missions," said Army Lt. Col. Chuck Rambo, the Task Force Eagle assault commander at FOB Shank. "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."

Because the ability to see the environment and the impacts of weather on operations saves lives, Rambo said. That capacity is never more evident than during medical evacuations, said Staff Sgt. Mary Henderson, a SWO for Task Force Hammerhead at Kandahar Airfield. When there's a request for a medevac, the weather Airmen move very quickly to get a weather assessment and let the rescue team 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 said. "It feels good knowing you're there to support those in need and help save lives. It's a big responsibility."

The squadron commander, Williams, said he's proud of his battlefield weather forecasters. "They have a very important and unique role," he said.

A role Soldiers appreciate and that is helping win the war in Afghanistan.