Eyeing the Iraqi sky from home

Air Force forecasters use technology to keep troops updated on weather conditions

As blinding sandstorms swept across the battle theater during the first week of the war in Iraq, military commanders relied on high-tech forecasting to predict weather conditions five days in advance and transmit information to the field on classified military networks.

The military is using more than 300 Air Force meteorologists thousands of miles from the Iraqi battlefield in the largest high-tech initiative ever launched to predict the weather and provide technical help to commanders who need hard data before moving their troops.

"The moment we think weather conditions are changing, we communicate that virtually immediately to the forward forces," said Lt. Col. Tom Frooninckx, commander of the 28th operational weather squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. "We know what their phone numbers are. We have secure phones."

In some cases, forecasters focus on a single airport or area in Iraq, keeping track of weather changes minute-by-minute around the clock, according to Frooninckx. In other cases, information from high-resolution satellite imagery and data from the field are run through a database that generates weather models.

The weather experts at Shaw Air Force Base who are responsible for daily forecasts in southwestern Asia, including Iraq and Kuwait, work with the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which is responsible for weather support worldwide.

The Air Force, which also provides information to the Army, has been watching weather patterns in Iraq for years, according to Col. Charles Benson Jr., the Air Force Weather Agency commander.

"It has always been an area of interest because of its strategic location. It is never an area that we took our eye off," Benson said.

A number of defense contractors provide support for satellite capabilities and ground forecast systems including well-known vendors such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Harris Corp.'s Government Communications Systems Division, Raytheon Co. and some lesser known firms such as Coastal Environmental Systems Inc., which designs weather stations, and Vaisala, which manufactures electronic meteorological equipment.

At a recent military briefing in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said the weather data and its potential impact is "always considered" and thoroughly analyzed each day at every level of the battle command.

"In some cases, it's as technical as deciding...how many charges you put on an artillery round before you fire it because of the barometric effects and the temperature effects," Brooks said.

At other times, he said, the forecast helps determine if a combat fighter jet mission will be flown at all or "whether we use a certain weapon system vs. another."

Military officials also use meteorologists who are assigned to the field to take on-the-ground barometric, temperature, wind and precipitation measurements.

"The information is pretty much a continuous stream," Benson said. "There can be sudden shifts on a local scale, a mountain valley where you have different typography, for example."

But weather experts know one thing for sure about Iraq. A country whose weather is much like sub-Saharan Africa or the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, it has two seasons — wet and dry. The dry season starts in May, when daytime temperatures can climb dramatically.

"It will get markedly warmer as the next few months unfold," Frooninckx said. "It will start in the south and proceed northward as summertime temperatures exceed 100 degrees every day."

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