From flying operations to special tactics missions to deciding whether or not to wear a jacket with a uniform, weather plays a large role in everyday activities around the Air Force.
“In military operations, weather is the first step in planning and the final determining factor in the execution of any mission,” said Gen. Carl Spaatz, the first chief of staff of the Air Force.
An example of this was during the events surrounding the D-Day Invasion in June 1944. After years of planning, and with more than 150,000 Allied lives at stake, British Group Captain James Stagg, the Allied Forces chief meteorological officer, advised Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to postpone the invasion by 24 hours due to forecasted adverse weather conditions.
Utilizing a robust network of weather stations, ships and sorties throughout the northern Atlantic, Stagg was able to predict and use environmental conditions to give the Allies the element of surprise during their assault on the beaches of Normandy, France.
The German meteorologists, meanwhile, failed by trusting a less sophisticated network of data to make their forecasts. While they also advised their commanders of the incoming storms, they believed the conditions were too harsh for any potential attack and many troops and commanders were withdrawn from the front lines to be used elsewhere.
This one forecast changed the fate of the war and, possibly, the world.
Today, forecasting weather is just as important to the Air Force and this job now falls, in large part, to the 557th Weather Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. As the Air Force’s only weather wing, the unit provides authoritative terrestrial and space-environmental data, analyses, forecasts, threat-warning and threat-mitigation products to the Department of Defense, all geographic and functional combatant commands, the National Intelligence Community, White House Situation Room, interagency, allied and coalition partners worldwide and across all security enclaves.
“Our wing’s goal is to optimize multi-domain decision superiority for the warfighter by mitigating atmospheric and solar threats to execution from the strategic to operational to tactical levels of warfare,” said Col. Rick Wagner, the 557th WW vice commander.
This specialized-mission wing is comprised of six operational weather squadrons and six specialized-mission squadrons organized into two groups: the 1st and 2nd Weather Groups.
Each of the 1st WXG’s six standardized operational weather squadrons, strategically located across the U.S., Europe and the Pacific, forecast for regions that roughly align with one or more geographic combatant command areas of responsibility. As central hubs for regional weather expertise, they characterize real-time and forecasted environmental conditions in those combatant commands via reachback for tactical Air Force weather units, who then tailor the hubs’ characterizations to the specific mission needs of operational units they directly support across the joint spectrum.
“Our Air Force tactical weather technicians not only have to become experts at atmospheric and space weather conditions, they also have to get smart on the weapon systems and mission profiles being employed in their region of forecast responsibility and how weather affects them,” Wagner said. “Weather is more than a point A and point B forecast. There are many levels in between. Because each weapon system and mission profile has different environmental sensitivities that can hinder performance, you can’t give the same mission forecast to everyone.”
For example, Soldiers traveling by ground vehicle from one location to another need a forecast for where they are, where they are going and everywhere in between. This includes sandstorms, mud or flood conditions, heavy rain or snow and any weather condition which can degrade visibility and hinder mobility.
An Apache helicopter flying the same route at 500 feet has different terrestrial and space weather concerns than a C-130 Hercules dropping parajumpers at 20,000 feet or a U-2 Dragon Lady performing ISR operations at 65,000 feet.
“So, despite having the same point of origin and destination, each warfighter’s mission profile is unique, requiring a different mission forecast tailored to the environmental threats they care about most for where they will be in the atmosphere, what weapon system they are using and what mission they are performing,” Wagner said.
“Here at the wing we play a huge role in supporting weather Airmen across the globe who directly support these missions as their 24/7 reachback provider of terrestrial and space weather information,” Wagner said. “The global information we provide serves as the fundamental building blocks they need to tailor and integrate weather effects, threat warning and mitigation into optimizing mission planning and execution.”
Unlike the 1st WXG’s six standardized squadrons, the 2nd WXG has six unique squadrons that specialize in high-performance supercomputing, global weather modeling, climate analysis, space weather and volcanic ash monitoring and warning, classified support to the intelligence community and deployed weather systems testing, training and maintenance.
Accurate weather modeling involves three major steps. Step one is initial data gathering via satellite, buoys, ground weather stations and other specialized sensors to provide current weather conditions at the point of collection. Step two is compiling the data and step three depends on large computing centers to crunch composite conditions and forecast the likely future state of the atmosphere.
These computers are located in Air Force Weather’s high-performance computing data center at Offutt, which is the Air Force’s largest Special Purpose Processing Node. This $322 million supercomputer houses 24,168 processors and is capable of routing more than eight terabytes of weather data per day to operators and planners around the world.
“It’s like the raw compressed power of 100,000 home computers at your fingertips,” said Senior Airman Jeffery Niles, a weather model software technician assigned to the 2nd WXG. “We transition raw weather data into predictions of what the weather will look like in the future in the form of actionable data.”
The cyber Airmen of the 2nd WXG handle two million weather observations and deliver 9,600 products worldwide every day.
“Everyone wants detailed weather data and for as long as I have been here, we have increased our resolution three times,” Niles said. “It’s like going from VHS to DVD to HD to 4K in the past five years.”
According to Niles, the Airmen operating, sustaining and maintaining the Air Force’s weather supercomputer are silently one of the most important parts of every Air Force mission.
In addition to providing terrestrial weather, the 2nd WXG operates the DoD’s only global Solar Electro-Optical Network, which feeds solar-threat data to the wing’s 24/7 Space Weather Operations Center. Here, space weather technicians keep eyes on the sun around the clock via five solar observatories strategically positioned around the globe, monitoring the sun’s emissions and providing mission-tailored analyses, forecasts and warnings. These products are used for mission planning, environmental situational awareness and emergency management by national agencies, DoD operators and decision makers.
When not properly identified, solar events can wreak havoc on Air Force missions. The largest recent solar flare happened in September 2017 during hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The effects of the flare caused communication blackouts across high frequency communication bands for a period of time, effecting the relief efforts of the Florida National Guard. It also impacted the Hurricane Hunters’ ability to get GPS signals from weather sensors they were dropping into the hurricane, decreasing their ability to effectively monitor and forecast the track of the storm.
“We monitor the protons and electrons that are coming from the sun. We also monitor X-ray data, which is how we forecast for flares,” said Tech. Sgt. Justin Hawthorne, noncommissioned officer in charge of space weather operations. “X-rays travel at the speed of light, so once they leave the sun, we know it’s going to reach us in about nine minutes, so it’s our first indicator of a significant space weather event.”
Hawthorne’s biggest concern is the possibility of an enormous solar flare like one that happened in 1859 called the Carrington Event, which registered almost 400 times the size of the solar flare in 2017, according to the solar storm scale.
“An event that size could cause a complete technological wipeout, blacking out electrical grids, satellites and the internet,” Hawthorne said. “By the last estimate it would potentially cause nearly $10 trillion in damage while sending us back to the 1950s.”
Hawthorne added that while there is nothing that can be done to stop it, the forecast can give about a 45-minute warning to enact some protective measures. Fortunately, the probability of such a high-risk event of that magnitude is relatively low, so it doesn’t keep him up at night.
What does is getting relevant information and space weather products to new customers to keep them aware of any possible mission degradation due to solar effects. To that end, the 2nd WXG conducts outreach to help other Airmen understand the effects of space weather.
“Recently we were talking to a remotely piloted aircraft customer and we’re like, ‘This is how space weather impacts you’,” said Hawthorne. “They came back and said, ‘Our aircraft fly in the atmosphere, we don’t care about space weather.’ At that point, somebody from my leadership asked, ‘How are you talking to your aircraft?’ And they said, ‘Satellites.’ ‘Where are the satellites?’ And then at that point they were like, ‘Oh, we do care about space weather.’ So, now they know if they are having a communication issue or a live-feed issue, we can delineate between if it’s an adversary action or an environmental event.”
From Army boots in the mud to solar flares from the sun, Air Force weather Airmen are delivering tailored threat-based weather forecasts to protect Department of Defense missions and win the fight.