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This article was Originally Published on Jul 23, 2003 in Volume: 1  Issue: 2

Storm Warnings

A look at U.S. Air Force special operations combat weathermen.

By Scott R. Gourley

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“…1830 2d Brigade, 82d Airborne Division, begins movement back to Area of Operations PINE, but only gets as far as escarpment just north of border because of adverse weather. [XVIII Airborne Corps Tactical Command Post SITREP 189 (5 Mar 91); 82d Airborne Division SITREP {209} (4 Mar 91)]…”

- XVIII Airborne Corps, Desert Storm Chronology, March 1991.

“…180730R Dec 89 [Monday] LTG Stiner moves N-Hour up to 0900R from original 1300R: a. Original selection of 1300R was based on OPSEC considerations because 18 Dec 89 was first day of Holiday half-day schedule, which made 1300R the final formation of the day; b. Caused by Military Airlift Command concerns over deteriorating weather….”

- 870-5a Organizational History Files. XVIII Airborne Corps. 1989-90. Operation Just Cause. Corps Historian’s Notes. Notebook #1. PERMANENT.

While the past 15 years have provided numerous examples of the U.S. military proving its claim of “owning the night,” no commander in the history of warfare has been presumptuous enough to claim ownership of the weather. Weather can be protected from, weather can be worked with or worked around, but weather can’t be controlled or owned.

The best that any modern commander can hope for is to control the assets and individuals that will provide him with the weather awareness that he needs to proceed with his plans. No scenario presents a greater need for this information than one involving special operations forces.

Combat Weathermen

In the case of U.S. special operations elements, the weather support for units comes from U.S. Air Force combat weathermen. Combat weathermen are weather forecasters with forward ground combat capabilities who gather and interpret weather data and provide additional intelligence information from deployed locations while working primarily with U.S. Army special operations forces.

Air Force special operations combat weathermen are assigned to the 10th Combat Weather Squadron, 720th Special Tactics Group, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Within the 720th, the combat weathermen join combat control team (CCT) members as well as pararescuemen (PJs).

The weather squadron’s unique blend of specialized capabilities is summarized in the unit’s motto: “Coela Bellatores,” which translated means “Weather Warriors.” Unit descriptions note that members have a commitment “to deploy into restricted environments by air, land or sea tactics to observe and analyze all weather data from ‘mud to sun.’”

One combat weatherman with the 10th Combat Weather Squadron, who requested to be referred to as “Tech Sergeant B,” said the unit brings two broad capabilities to modern special operations missions.

“First of all, we have airmen who work as part of the commander’s staff,” he explained. “And the way we work in that sense of the mission is that we help the commander prepare his troops to go out into the ground conflict. We help those troops prepare, [to determine] what equipment they need to bring to basically keep themselves as comfortable as possible.

“Also, we help identify any key players that might be a problem for aircraft that might come in—to get them to where they’re going or pick them up later. Then once we get them out there we keep the commander updated on what the weather is doing—where his troops are so that he keeps a good situational awareness on what his guys are facing—the challenges they’re facing every day. And when we do that, we also look at all the weather aspects and how it effects not only the commander and his guys, but also what the weather is going to do to effect the enemy and his capabilities.”

The second broad capability involves the operational boots-in-the-mud tactical support to special operations.

“We also put guys in forward remote locations,” he said. “They could be bringing just about anything to the table then. Their main purpose once they get out there in the forward location is to take observations on some kind of schedule; be it hourly, every three hours, twice a day or some other time. Usually it’s going to be more toward a weather reconnaissance type of thing where they are going to try to come up with patterns for the weather.”

Moreover, as part of the SOF team, combat weathermen are expected to possess the additional combat skills of field operators.

“They are part of the team that is deployed forward and, at the same time, they have a weather mission to collect those observations and get them back to the rear,” explained Tech Sergeant B.

Training

As might be expected, such broad combat capabilities mandate an equally broad training pathway for the combat weatherman.

Tech Sergeant B outlined a training foundation built on Air Force basic training followed by approximately five months of “initial skills weather training.”

“From there they’ll go to what we call an Operational Weather Squadron—there are four in the states and four more overseas. When they get to those locations—they’re big forecasting centers that basically cover regions—they’re going to be there at least two years. While they are there they are going to go through on the job training where they’re going to get more forecasting knowledge. That’s really where they’re going to hone their forecasting skills that they’ll have throughout their career.”

Then the training track gets a little complicated. Once they leave the operational weather squadrons, the future combat weathermen return to a technical school called the Combat Weather Orientation Course.

“Combat weather is used to cover a lot of things,” noted Tech Sergeant B. “This combat weather orientation course is for everybody in Air Force weather. It’s geared more towards the guys at the base weather stations who deploy with the units that they support. Usually that’s going to be an aircraft unit, like a flying squadron or something, and [combat weatherman] are going to be there to brief their air crews.”

For those few who opt to pursue the special operations combat weatherman track, that interest is usually identified prior to the orientation course.

Until recently, the special operations weatherman came to AFSOC following the orientation course and was then sent to airborne school, survival school and water survival school.

“At the same time, we have a lot of the training burden on our squadron where we have to train them on the tactical weather equipment that they’ll be using,” the NCO said. “We also do a thing now, we just started in the last couple of years, called initial skills training. That’s where we try to give them some basics of field operating skills; ground operating skills; the basics of shoot, move and communicate that they’ll need in the [special operations] operator mission.”

In the summer of 2003 an enormous shift in training strategy will occur, as the first combat weathermen will be put through advanced skills training (AST) at Hurlburt Field, FL. AST was established in April 2001 to address the shortfall in CCT manning levels. (May 2001 saw AFSOC CCTs at 74 percent manning—288 actual versus 389 authorized.)

“Starting next month we are putting the first weather guy into what’s called advanced skills training here [at Hurlburt Field],” Tech Sergeant B said. “We’ll take a guy, as he’s getting his feet wet and figuring out what’s going on at the unit where he’s at, and bring these guys back to AST. It’s the same school that the combat controllers and the PJs are going through. These are the guys who are training up to be those operator guys to go forward. It’s a big step.”

He added that the combat weathermen continue to receive additional training through the Army special operations units where they are assigned.

Equipment

Along with the standard fighting equipment provided to U.S. special operators, combat weathermen rely on a number of specialized tools to perform their missions.

One recent addition to their weather arsenal is the Kestrel 4000 palm-sized weather device from Nielsen-Kellerman. Representing the system as “the next generation of weather monitoring,” company literature notes that the pocket-sized instrument can be used to measure, record and chart environmental conditions like barometric pressure, altitude, density altitude, temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind chill, dew point, wet bulb and heat index.

Within combat weather units, the 4000 model was introduced approximately two years ago as a replacement for earlier models in the Kestrel series.

“Kestrel 4000 is definitely used,” said Tech Sergeant B. “Right now it is the best thing going for the forward location stuff. It’s pocket sized. It can basically give you everything you want right there with one instrument; that, along with a GPS, so you can send back positions.

“The forward guy might also take a small helium bottle and some small weather balloons to do some upper air wind measurements or even cloud deck heights. Those are pretty much the key ingredients for the forward guy,” he added.

Another system that could find its way into many combat weather scenarios is the remote miniature weather station by System Innovations Inc. of Fredericksburg, VA.

The battery/solar powered backpack portable unit can be remotely emplaced to send weather data to an operator display via satellite communications link. Measurements include: temperature: -40 F (-40 C) to +150 F (66 C) (±2 F (1 C)); humidity: 0 to 100 percent (±5 percent); barometric pressure: 14.75 to 32.45 in of Hg (±0.06); wind speed: 0 to 45 knots (± 2 knots); higher wind speeds can be measured with an accuracy of ±10 percent; wind direction: 360 degrees ±10 degrees; and visibility: 0.06 to 5.0 nmi ±10 percent of range.

The system has been developed in both air-droppable and hand-emplaced configurations.

Tech Sergeant B explained, “You, as a weather guy, can either put this sensor out or you can actually train somebody to go out and emplace it for you. The way it works is that it transmits observations up to satellites, which transmit them to a down station on the earth. Then basically you get an e-mail with observations from that remote sensor. The concept is really cool.”

The remote miniature weather system (RMWS) is a one man portable/air-droppable, lightweight, expendable and modular system comprised of two components; a meteorological (MET) sensor and a ceilometer (cloud ceiling height) with limited MET. The basic MET system is surface-based and measures wind speed and direction, horizontal visibility, surface atmospheric pressure, air temperature and relative humidity. The ceilometer sensor determines cloud height and discreet cloud layers. The system provides near-real-time data capable of 24-hour operation for 60 days.

He cautioned that the unit was not without its operational restrictions or limitations: the primary one being eye safety. As an example, one ancillary system to the RMWS is the remote miniature ceilometer. Designed to measure multiple layer cloud ceiling heights and then send that data via satellite communications link to an operator display, the system uses a Neodinum YAG (NdYAG), 4 megawatt non-eye safe laser.

“We have to watch that one,” he said. “Leaving it out there basically we’re worried about civilian populace going out there and playing with it—firing the laser and there goes somebody’s eye. There are two different units [to RMWS]. One has the laser and one doesn’t. The basic difference is the one with the laser is going to give you cloud height.”

He added that another consideration with the remote station is the possibility that it might require the availability of combat weather personnel to be dispatched for repair or service requirements that might come up.

During FY04 Defense Emergency Response Funding ($323,000) was made available to acquire ancillary equipment for the remote miniature ceilometer units and four omni weather remote miniature units. During FY05 10 ceilometers and 11 omni weather remote miniature units will be acquired through an open competition (total funding expected to be about $776,000).

One of the primary “reachback” communication sets used by combat weather is the PSC-5 satcom and line-of-sight radio. This allows the operator, working through a laptop, to type messages and send through the radio.

Employment

In terms of notional employment scenarios, Tech Sergeant B indicated that one common situation involved putting a combat weatherman forward to help work on a drop zone or landing zone.

“We can go in there and keep sending the weather back, so, as aircraft come in or aircraft come in to drop any equipment or personnel, we can keep them on a good situational awareness of what the weather is doing there; hopefully to help them make smart decisions. If there’s a window there that doesn’t look good, we could say, ‘Hey, you might want to drop it back a couple of hours’ or ‘Today doesn’t look good.’ We could help them make important decisions like that,” he explained.

He offered another scenario in which a combat weatherman could be attached to a special operations element moving to a far forward location. 

“Our airman’s role would be to keep weather situational awareness for friendly forces that might come in behind them,” he noted, adding, “[Weather situational awareness] is really important in the high-tech world because, as these things become more precise, a lot of times the precision causes them to be more weather sensitive. It also could be a case of a guy looking for close air support from above. But if the weather is bad, he’s not going to get that close air support.”

Summarizing the challenges of his unique occupation, the combat weatherman pointed to the fact that, “We supply all the weather support to the Army Special Operations Command and also to some of the Air Force special operations elements. It is a very challenging world. Working with the Army day in and day out, you have to learn the Army system. But at the same time you have to use the airman basics of bringing ‘airmanship’ to the Army. You’re learning their ranks; the way they work; their military organization, which is extremely different from the Air Force.

“It’s kind of like being somewhere between the two services and having to know both of them.”



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