Weathermen enable special operations forces in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Elliott Sprehe
  • Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force - Afghanistan Media Operations Center
"We're being engaged by effective small-arms and RPG fire," yelled a special forces team leader in his radio back to the operations center.

"Requesting close-air support at this time," he continued.

But the dark sky above, laced with the promise of an impending storm, hooded the hostile territory and threatened the possibility of air support.

The special operations weatherman embedded with the team carefully analyzed the weather data he collected and advised the commander and the combat controller: there would be a small weather window of opportunity where close-air support and airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets could be synchronized before conditions would turn unfavorable.

These critical enablers are components of the Air Force's Special Tactics teams and are attached to special operations force elements for deployment in non-permissive and politically sensitive areas of operation.

In events where inclement weather and environmental conditions can impact military operations or the local populace, special operations weathermen provide on-scene data collection and mission enhancing forecasts. These Airmen possess highly technical skill sets combined with the latest military technology, enabling them to integrate environmental effects to ongoing operations and planning. This fusion of joint terminal attack controllers and special operations weatherman ensure the successful synchronization of air assets in complex battlefield conditions.

The weather career field roots began in 1917 originating as the U.S. Army Weather Service before being transferred in 1947 to the Air Force with the provision that the Air Force would still provide meteorological services to the Army.

Special operations weather technicians were active in World War II to provide observations from deep inside enemy-held territory to advise bombing missions traveling hundreds of miles toward data-sparse objectives. In every conflict to this day, Air Force special operations weather technicians still provide data collection and weather forecasts for the Army, but it wasn't until May 5, 2008 the Air Force approved a new Air Force specialty code (known in the Army as a military occupational specialty) for special operations weather. This ensured that the SOWT recruits were given a selection and assessment and a standardized training pipeline the parallels the Air Force combat controller plan.

The creation of the new position helps to serve as an opportunity for new recruits to join the career field, as they were drawn from conventional weather units previously. After completion of the two year pipeline, newly trained special operations weather technicians become part of one of the smallest and most highly trained units in the Department of Defense and subsequently are the only Air Force weathermen trained and equipped to operate with special operations forces "outside the wire."

More specifically, special operations weather technicians support special forces, most of which are located in austere areas, including locations across Afghanistan, in support of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan.

Special operations weather technicians are Air Force meteorologists trained and equipped to operate in hostile or denied territory to gather data and environmental intelligence in forward deployed locations in direct support of strategic and tactical objectives.

"They collect, analyze and integrate environmental intelligence," said Capt. Jonathan Sawtelle, the CJSOTF-A SOWT liaison officer.

Captain Sawtelle works as a conduit for the SOWTs located at forward operating bases. These forward deployed SOWTs provide vital intelligence, which can directly affect air movement including close-air support, resupply, infiltration and exfiltration, and ISR platforms as well as ground movements for special and conventional forces.

"Weather can constrain MEDEVAC missions or force (MQ-1) Predators to be re-tasked," Captain Sawtelle said.

SOWTs also assist in establishing some scientific data regarding climate, precipitation and more, especially in Afghanistan. Because of the limited resources in Afghanistan, forward deployed SOWTs, provide climate data in different areas of the country; data that would otherwise not be collected.

The information provided includes annual precipitation in certain areas, river speeds, depths and water temperatures, avalanche risk, wind readings and more.

"The terrain is so complex and there are little to no existing meteorological data on record," Capt. Sawtelle said. "Each valley has its own micro-climate, specific terrain features and agricultural resources."

SOWTs providing daily situational awareness to the CJSOTF-A commander including weather forecasts that can at times dictate the effectiveness of missions, both air and ground. Their job is to advise air and ground force commanders of timelines and impacts and enable them to mitigate or exploit the expected conditions.

One aspect of their duties, environmental reconnaissance, shows how SOWTs assist in maintaining operational success.

"We provide foresight to ground force commanders for any impact to mission," said a SOWT Airman at a FOB in western Afghanistan. "While conveying impacts on future operations to a ground force commander goes a long way, providing alternative courses of action solidifies our place in any theatre of war."

"I'm a pinpoint on a map, but I'm not just a team asset," the special operations weatherman said. "We present weather products to coalition forces for the big picture of operations. We provide information on terrain and soil density, which determine the ability to support traffic ability of large vehicle movements."

Collection of this data paves the way for future operations by conventional and special operations force elements.

SOWTs have a variety of resources at his disposal to include weather satellites, forecasting products and tools such as riverine kits, which measure temperature and speed of crucial crossing points. They also use the RQ-11B Raven, an unmanned aircraft system with onboard electro-optical sensors, providing real-time reconnaissance with the ability to survey enemy activity and terrain from safe distances.

By using tools such as the above mentioned, SOWTs can provide information to SOF and non-SOF forces regarding the ability to ford rivers for troop movements on the ground.

"River data can mean the difference between a successful river crossing and a vehicle getting stuck," Captain Sawtelle said.

"We're the only job in the Department of Defense that does what we do," the Airman said. "We paint a picture for moving through terrain, establishing landing zones, and by doing so, help provide mission success."

Other aspects of environmental recon include talking to the Afghan people to get a better grasp of the environmental history.

"There are farmers in this country that have been working this land their entire lives. So we ask them how the harvest was compared to previous years; what they are farming; has it flooded; how often does it flood," the Airman said.

By doing so, SOWTs gain access to a wealth of information to help assist them in their duties in gaining atmospheric data to complement civil-military mission effectiveness.

"The info we provide serves dual roles," the Airman said. "We help establish lasting empirical data for long-term mission success about the climate of Afghanistan and also provide timely, accurate and relevant info for short-term outlook for operational success."

SOWTs are another facet the Air Force brings to supporting SOF; enabling mission success and continuing to provide tactical and strategic information to provide for the future success of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.