Environmental Forecasters Maneuver Commanders Through Rough Waters

February 2000
By Maryann Lawlor
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Move to commercial off-the-shelf products and Web delivery allows allied troops in Kosovo to gain weather advantage.

U.S. Navy meteorologists directly aided coalition forces in the Kosovo operation, where the advantages of high-technology weaponry and rapid force deployment could easily have been offset by new vulnerabilities imposed by a dynamic environment. While cold fronts, wind and rain may not immediately be thought of as combatants, weather and sea conditions are more than a mere backdrop for military forces. And, the applications for weather pattern data go beyond determining if it is safe to send aircraft into the skies.

Today's high-technology weapons, submarines and ships rely on sensors to feed them information--sensors that can be affected by their surroundings. In addition, new threats of chemical and biological warfare require accurate readings and predictions of wind currents to determine necessary protective actions. This information is of little value, however, if it is only available to a few meteorologists. To be effective, it must be packaged in understandable formats, then rapidly passed along to the locations where it will be most useful.

To accomplish this task and give U.S. and allied military forces the environmental advantage in Kosovo operations, the U.S. Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, John C. Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and World Wide Web technology. Because it recognizes the importance of weather to the success of a mission, the U.S. Defense Department has dedicated two of only a handful of its supercomputers to support this effort.

The command operates out of two primary production centers: one at Stennis and the other at the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center, Monterey, California. These centers feed products and information into three regional centers and a number of smaller facilities and detachments. In addition, personnel from these units deploy to ships and military bases to support specific missions. Their goal is to provide timely weather and oceanographic information not only through satellite images, but also through models of weather forecasts that are based on examining and incorporating historic weather data. "The Navy and its operations revolve around the weather," explains John Meyer, director of fleet systems division, plans and programs department, Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

One of the Navy's primary concerns is how weather and sea conditions affect weapons and weapon platforms, command officials explain. For example, environmental conditions can influence sensitive missile guidance systems, altering a projectile's course and causing it to miss the intended target. To ensure the success of a missile strike, commanders examine meteorological information and may choose to increase the number of missiles deployed for a specific mission. When missile inventory diminishes, accurate weather data can help commanders determine the optimum number of missiles to deploy to complete the mission successfully.

Missile targeting also depends on the platforms from which they are launched. Submarine commanders must be acutely aware of sea and atmospheric conditions to ensure that, once fired, a missile will reach its intended mark. Rough seas introduce unpredictability. Lt. Cmdr. Ashley D. Evans, USN, department head, mobile environmental team, Naval European Meteorology and Oceanography Center (NEMOC), Rota, Spain, offers an analogy. "Think of it like a rolling cigar in the water, and you want to launch a toothpick out of it. Then stir up the water, and you have no idea of where the toothpick will go," he explains.

Meteorology and oceanography are examined in tandem because they are interdependent and involve the same principles of fluid dynamics. The convergence of these two studies specifically benefits naval operations. Submarines rely on their surrounding environment to maintain the secrecy of their positions as well as track adversaries. Small watercraft scheduled for operations near beaches and in littoral zones must know the predicted environment of the area both above and below them. Special operations teams need data about the degree of bioluminescence in a body of water as well as weather conditions to set ashore successfully and unnoticed.

These tasks are particularly challenging in the Adriatic Sea region near Kosovo, Cmdr. Evans states. Winter in the Mediterranean area features dynamic weather patterns. On March 24, 1999, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched air strikes on Kosovo and Serbia, exercises conducted with the organization's standing naval force in the Mediterranean benefited both U.S. and allied forces in the area where the Adriatic acts like a trough, funneling the weather, the commander explains.

"The weather drives a lot of the decision-making process and is an initial driver," Cmdr. Evans says. Mission support included information for unmanned aerial vehicles that were used for reconnaissance missions, radar support to the commander of the standing naval forces, pilot and commander weather briefing data, forecast models and preparation for possible chemical or biological weapon attacks.

To share this information in a timely manner, COTS technologies were leveraged heavily, Meyer says. "Five years ago, Web communication was not as mature. Until we had the commercial products that are out there today, we couldn't use it as well. Today, the technology is out there. So, we created Web sites, and the facilities put the information on there. Then, when it was time to do a briefing, the people on site could check and see the most current data and give the briefing," he offers. Among the available items were data, such as satellite images, products that included prebuilt packages for presenting the information, and value-added products, which include analysis of the data.

"The COTS industry has been very good at making advances in this area. In the past, the command's mission was different. It used to focus on the weather and the tactical aspects of weather. Now, because we have limited resources, we have been focusing on how to get the information to the common operation picture, and COTS products are right for this. They are mature. We don't need to reinvent, we can use what's there," Meyer states.

The Web is one conduit for obtaining various visualization tools to retrieve, examine and annotate meteorology and oceanography (METOC) information. The Joint METOC Viewer (JMV) uses Web technology to access Navy-generated weather and ocean data from nearly anywhere in the world. Using any of the supported World Wide Web browsers, the JMV client program can be downloaded and installed to a local machine and executed as a helper application. Data is then accessed from any of the regional Web sites, and users can select a thumbnail graphic of a desired geographic area. Using hypertext transport protocol, the selected product is automatically transferred to the client computer, and the JMV program is executed as a viewer for the product data.

Thomas J. Holmstedt, computer specialist and information systems security manager, NEMOC, says one key technology in Kosovo was the meteorological and oceanography integrated data display system (MIDDS). "The system had been deployed prior to events in Kosovo, so when Kosovo hit, we were ready because some smart people had the vision four or five years ago to put COTS in place," Holmstedt says. Microsoft NT 4.0 platforms were among the technologies already in place, he adds.

Used as a pilot briefing tool and tactical aid, MIDDS takes geostationary and polar orbiting satellite imagery, weather model gridded data, radar, lightning strike and other in-situ automatic observing system information and puts it in one place. Information and forecasts are gathered from the various weather and oceanography commands. Called the Wall of Thunder, the technology features four monitors in one computer system. In the past, this information was presented on a chart using data that was hours old. "With MIDDS, pilots look at the most recent data and get a continuous loop of satellite pictures that are no more than 30 minutes old," Holmstedt explains. Only 10 years ago, this information was sent via fax. With this technology, the number of charts that can be transmitted has increased tenfold. This data can then be converted into overlays on a computer screen. In addition, more accurate information can be provided to troops with the support of only 35 to 40 percent of the people that were required in the 1980s, he adds.

"This $400,000 system is better because it is easier to manage, and the procurement period is shorter. It replaced a $1.5 million system," Holmstedt offers.

While he does not want to focus on the negative, Holmstedt admits some problems were encountered with available bandwidth and information security. "A lot of information operations were going on that were mostly felt in terms of denial of service. We spent a tremendous number of hours watching for viruses and making sure firewalls were secure. We went from a couple of hours to a couple of days a week just watching this," he explains.

Cmdr. Evans points out that the evolutionary state of information technology aboard ships posed another challenge. The information technology initiative for the 21st century, or IT-21, aims at modernizing information technology throughout the service; however, it has not yet been fully realized. "Most of the ships had the upgraded equipment, but in the middle of the conflict, there was a battle group turnover and with the second group there was no IT-21 connectivity, so we had to go back to older ways. We still have to keep up with the least common denominator and have to take this into account when working in this area," the commander says.

Connectivity between security levels during Kosovo operations was greatly improved by employing one product. The joint operational data interface (JODI) facilitates the transfer of unclassified environmental data elements from an unclassified medium to a classified medium in a timely manner. While individual pieces of weather information might not be classified as secret, once an entire weather picture is formed, the result can be classified data, Cmdr. Evans explains. In addition, because allied forces were involved in the operations, information from other countries was combined with U.S. data to create a total regional overview as well as specialized area forecasts.

Most of the information and many of the products offered by the command are unclassified and can be made available through the nonsecure Internet protocol router network. Before employing JODI, information had to be physically carried on a disk to be used on the secret Internet protocol router network--the network used most by battlespace decision makers. The JODI workstation acts as a bridge, joining existing classified and unclassified local area networks that consist of a variety of UNIX and Intel-based servers and workstations. This creates a real-time data source for the fleet. According to Holmstedt, this connectivity was a significant contributor to the success of Kosovo operations as it allowed a constant data flow between the two Cray supercomputers located in the United States and the troops in the area. Weather models offered commanders forecast information up to 96 hours in advance.

Although weather and sea conditions have always influenced military operations, Meyer believes that this role has increased dramatically in the time between the Desert Storm and Kosovo operations and will continue to grow as technologies emerge and improve. Because the cost of computing resources has decreased drastically since the early 1990s, they are, and will continue to be, used more often. This will improve human forecasting skills and result in more accurate predictions, he explains.

Dr. Paul F. Moersdorf, technical director, Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center, agrees that affordability and availability have contributed to the growth of the command's role in combat and humanitarian operations. This trend is likely to continue as engineers create products that supply more precise guidance to commanders in the field and scientists draw on historical data to produce more accurate forecasts, he says. Today, forecasters offer information about weather patterns that will reach an area in four to five days. The goal for the immediate future is to extend that forecast period to six days and beyond and continue to be accurate.

During the early 1990s, the meteorology and oceanography command supported six customers. Five major centers and the automatic digital network supplied information to ships using a teletypewriter. Only a few products were available. Today, everything the command does is dynamic. As data becomes available, it and thousands of products are provided to more than 4,000 customers, Moersdorf offers. In the future, automated observing systems that gather worldwide data will combine with local information to furnish commanders with even more precise decision-making tools, he adds.