Although the Air Force has some of the most sophisticated precision-guided
weaponry ever made, it has yet to solve a key piece of the high-tech warfare
puzzle: the weather forecast.
Current weather data-processing systems employed in air operations centers
are antiquated and, most regrettably, are not interoperable with the rest of
the Air Force war planning tools, said Brig. Gen. Thomas Stickford, director
of weather programs.
“The weather cell is a stumbling block” that slows down strike
missions, he told a conference of the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
It can take up to two hours to merge weather satellite data with imagery of
the target area and other information used in planning aerial bombings, he said.
“The better the data, the better the predictions.” Some of the most
reliable weather data comes from special operations teams on the ground.
Situations can get especially dicey when the weather conditions change rapidly,
because the updates are relayed manually. If a mission happens to be based on
outdated weather information, the consequences could be deadly, Stickford explained.
The good news for the weather people is that the problem got the attention
of Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force top commander during the preparations
and early phase of the Iraq war, who is now vice chief of staff.
When Moseley returned from Iraq, his marching orders were, “we need to
fix this business,” Stickford recalled. “All of a sudden, doors
opened up. We were helped with money, expertise, all sorts of things.”
The improvements will come in the form of automated data-sharing systems, known
in Air Force parlance as “machine-to-machine weather.” The idea
is to get weather information instantly fed into command-and-control systems
so planners can make decisions based on accurate up-to-date weather data.
The Air Force tested a machine-to-machine weather software tool during the
recent Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
Moseley also directed that simulations used in Air Force training exercises
get realistic weather models, which often has not been the case in the past,
Stickford said. Exercise planners tend to dismiss the weather as an annoyance
that “screws things up,” he said. “One of the lessons from
Iraq is that weather needs to be in models and simulations.”
The Air Force, additionally, is revising its definition of “all-weather”
weapons. There is no such thing, Stickford acknowledged. Even the most sophisticated
weapons don’t work in dust storms, for example. A more accurate description
is “adverse-weather” weapons, he said. “On any document that
comes across my desk and says ‘all weather,’ we scratch that out,
and we put ‘adverse weather.’”