Eyeing the Iraqi sky from home

Air Force Weather Agency

Blinding sandstorms slowed American forces in Iraq this week, but military commanders relied on high-tech forecasting that can predict conditions five days in advance and transmit information to the field on classified networks.

The military is using more than 300 Air Force meteorologists thousands of miles from the Iraqi battlefield 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. We know what their phone numbers are. We have secure phones," said Lt. Col. Tom Frooninckx, commander of the 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.

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

The weather experts at Shaw who are responsible for daily forecasts in southwest Asia work with the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., which is responsible for weather support worldwide.

The Air Force, which provides information to the Army as well, has been watching weather patterns in Iraq for many years, according to Col. Charles Benson Jr., the agency's 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," he said.

Several 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. and Raytheon Co. as well as 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, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said the weather data and its potential impact is "always considered" and thoroughly analyzed daily 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."

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