U.S. troops in Iraq will rely on accurate weather forecasts for every mission they attempt. Their information will come mainly from halfway around the world: the 28th Operational Weather Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. Leda Hartman reports the squadron is part of a sophisticated new weather prediction system put in place after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
There's a combination lock on the door of Room 133, at the headquarters of the 28th Operational Weather Squadron, and a map of the Middle East on the wall. Soldiers in camouflage dress come and go. But the room is off limits to reporters. This is the nerve center for weather forecasting for the U.S. Air Force Central Command, or CENTAF - the region that includes Iraq.
Next door, Chief Celinda Larabee, who supervises enlisted soldiers, describes what it's like in Room 133. "The CENTAF operation cell is about a room half this size, but the same amount of people sitting elbow to elbow, monitor to monitor. We've had an influx of people in to forecast weather for that area," she said, noting that they have added staff.
The weather is one crucial piece in a complicated set of factors that influence if, how and when a military mission takes place. CENTAF'S chief forecaster, Major Chris Finta, said his outfit considers everything from mud to sun. "We got the soldiers in the field with their boots in the mud or dust, in this case, that are doing their things. You have pilots that are flying all different kinds of missions. And each one of them has a specific impact from a particular kind of weather," he explained.
Ground troops in Iraq need to know about dust storms and high temperatures. Aircrews need to know about turbulence and cloud cover. Both want information on visibility.
Major Ron Asbury stands in front of a large computer monitor that's collecting U.S. domestic weather data, and explains how the weather squadron gets its information. "Here we have satellite images, we use a lot of satellites. The radar, which I showed you. We have lightning. We also use computer model data," he said.
The forecasts for Iraq compiled at Shaw Air Force Base are sent to combat weather teams on the ground in the Middle East. There, the teams use mobile kits to measure everything from barometric pressure to moonlight, refining the forecasts further. Major Asbury, who served as a combat weatherman in Saudi Arabia, said the Middle East poses some unique challenges. One is a combination of sand and wind called a "shamal."
"Sandstorms, obviously, if you're trying to visually hit a target, you have to be able to see it, and there's times when the visibility goes down to zero," Major Asbury said.
The other challenge, if the war lasts that long, will be the brutal summer heat in Iraq, which can force soldiers to take more rests and water breaks. "It can get to be [49 degrees Celsius]. And even without wearing chemical suits, it's pretty hot," he explained.
With access to special satellites, radar stations and pilot reports, military forecasts are generally more accurate than regular commercial ones. The soldiers in the 28th Operational Weather Squadron say they can foretell the weather from one hour to five days beforehand, and forecast accurately down to 2.5 square kilometers. They can predict everything that will be in the air, except, perhaps, for the chemical weapons the Bush Administration said Iraq has.
Major Asbury said the military's weather forecast system has changed a lot in the 12 years since the U.S. military crossed the Kuwait-Iraq border in Operation Desert Storm.
"Before, it was a lot of single-station forecasting, where you look up and say, 'Okay, this is what it looks like now, this is what I think is gonna happen.' Now we have a bigger picture of the area and a lot more forecasting," Major Asbury said.
As the war in Iraq escalates, the pressure on the 28th Operational Weather Squadron does too. Even in the room that does forecasts for cities across the United States, civilian forecaster Keith Olson said the pace has picked up. "You can feel them getting a little bit tense in here the people here, the young people doing the forecasting. You can see them getting a little tense about what's going on," he said.
Meanwhile, Major Chris Finta said one thing that helps his staff stay focused is the fact that the art and science of weather forecasting are still basically the same even if the stakes are now a whole lot higher.