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Weather team info used at `lowest level and the highest level' in battle

DOHA, Qatar—In the nerve center where commanders run the war, next to the teams that analyze intelligence, surveillance and chemical and biological threats, Dave Whalen keeps an eye on the one thing that affects all operations.

The weather.

With ground troops fighting through brutal sandstorms, with key army equipment sailing through the Suez Canal and with the desert heat rising as urban war looms, Whalen makes sure war planners are prepared for the elements.

His team analyzes forecasts, satellite data, updates from the battlefield, and numeric models that rely on physics. He pushes bits of information up the chain of command, and pushes a consistent message back down.

"One theater, one forecast," said Whalen, a Boston native who serves as the weather officer at the coalition's operational headquarters in Qatar. "Forecasters are like chefs, you get too many opinions "

Whalen's team spotted this week's sandstorm five days before it darkened the sky, grounded planes and helicopters and halted the race to Baghdad. The information allowed commanders to make adjustments and still fly more than 1,400 sorties Tuesday.

Whalen's information changes strategies "at the lowest level and the highest level," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for U.S. Central Command.

They determine which planes fly, whether pilots use bombs that are guided by satellite or lasers and even how many charges an artilleryman must use to a round to make sure high winds don't diminish the firepower.

"As a matter of practice in military operations, we always consider the effects of weather," Brooks said. "Our operations that continued the last several days took weather into account and continued in spite of it."

Whalen served in the Navy for eight years before starting to think about potential civilian careers. By joining the military's meteorology and oceanography division, he was guaranteed a master's degree and a leg up for the environmental clean-up job he was considering.

He arrived for his 13-hour shift Wednesday amid choking swirls of sand and a hot wind that felt like a furnace. After checking weather data for any changes to the forecast, he began a series of briefings with mid-level war commanders.

"Weather impacts operations, but by giving them the heads up, it gives them the ability to adjust," Whalen said. "We're an all-weather force. At the end of the day, it's not a showstopper."

Battlefield forecasts ultimately come from the 28th Weather Squadron in Shaw, S.C. Some argue forecasters need to be closer to the war to be reliable. But Whalen said when Central Command makes predictions for its area of responsibility—the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa—being somewhere such as Bahrain matters little.

"Most meteorologists are probably sitting in a building, looking at a computer, forecasting for a region that could be five miles away or 500 miles away," Whalen said. "Local observation is only good for so many miles. After that, you have to go to the computer."

Each day, Central Command's weather team chats via a secure Web site to hash out occasional differences of opinion and agree on its classified forecast. Besides the computers and the battlefield reports, they also rely on civilians and military troops stationed across Europe and the Mediterranean.

"We want to look upstream," Whalen said, "to see what's coming our way."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+WEATHER

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ+WEATHER