Professional Notes: Environmental Prediction Is a Weapon System

By Captains R. Russell Smith and Sean Robinson and Commander Kate Hermsdorfer, U.S. Navy; and Bill Kerr

In Iraq and Afghanistan, warfighters enjoyed a military overmatch and easy access to information. Now the operational mind-set is that accurate weather forecasts will always be available, and knowledge of the environment is not considered a tactical or operational advantage.

War games today use only notional weather or do not even consider environmental impact. And it is common for strike mission briefers to ignore the effect on radar propagation of atmospheric conditions and terrain. Radar and weapon ranges are depicted as symmetric, static, circular rings, rather than as the irregular, dynamic, changing shapes they are, affected by the physical battlespace. With air superiority, planners lay down a 50-nautical-mile (nm) surface-to-air missile range ring to determine ingress routes, standoff ranges, and weapons release points, even though that 50nm range assumes unrealistic standard atmospheric conditions with homogenous surroundings. The true range varies with time, depending on actual conditions. Against a near-peer adversary, even this small distance might be the difference between success and failure—or at least a much higher casualty rate.

The new Information Warfare Commander (IWC) Afloat construct—where the individual strengths of intelligence, cryptology, communications, and meteorology and oceanography (MetOc) combine to synchronize the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information—provides a framework where planners and commanders can capitalize on a better understanding and appreciation of operational meteorology and oceanography. Numerical environmental prediction (NEP) that relies on the most advanced computer programming is a critical warfighting tool in the high-end fight, and today’s cutting-edge technologies are poised to make numerical prediction much better.

The Navy needs urgently to invest in revolutionary computing advances in environmental prediction and allot sufficient afloat bandwidth for numerical weather and ocean model delivery. Real weather from the physical environment should also be used for war gaming. Just as traditional warfighters push for next-generation jammers, fighters, and warships, they should support and prioritize next-generation NEP capability that will give them more accurate predictions at longer time horizons.

ESPC: A Strategic Advantage

The Navy’s Earth System Prediction Capability (ESPC) gathers data on state-of-the-art advances in computer science, atmospheric and ocean physics, and sensor technologies to deliver a significant advantage over adversaries. Navy ESPC offers long-range resource planning, support in communications-contested environments, support for systems operating at the edges of their capabilities, and anticipation of extreme weather and ocean events. In addition to continuing the MetOc community's long tradition of providing outstanding support to ships, aircraft, submarines, and shore facilities, Navy ESPC brings better battlespace support for both manned and unmanned platforms and systems.

Running within a single paradigm—the Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF)—ESPC overlays data from the global atmosphere, ocean, wave, and ice models. With the prediction system providing shared memory and within-model messaging and bounding, each individual model interacts with the others to ensure conservation of energy and other key physics parameters.

Current NEP modeling of atmosphere, ocean, and waves is done serially and requires assumptions that do not hold in the real world. It also keeps data assimilation separate—informing the model of the current state of the natural world by ingesting ground, aircraft, and radiosonde observations, satellite data, and other sensor sources within each model domain.

By contrast, ESPC unifies data assimilation processes, which means the modeling cycle is continually refreshed with assessments of the current state of the natural environment and effects among domains. With the anticipated growth of environmental data collection from unmanned platform observations, ESPC can achieve “enviromimetic” initializing conditions that mimic nature and better support coupled model physics. This translates into more accurate, long-range weather predictions.

ESPC can predict specific conditions up to 16 days ahead versus the 5–7 days currently available. It will deliver predictions with specific ranges of values, including quantified uncertainty, for periods of 90 days or more. With a greater than 800 percent increase in environmental prediction period, ESPC offers clear strategic, operational, and tactical advantages.

Operational Considerations

In the event potential U.S. partner nations should decide against hosting U.S. Navy forces even temporarily, sea basing will be a critical warfighting asset. Because ESPC enables much longer-range forecasting, tasks such as planning a lasting artificial sea base will be grounded on far more reliable and realistic data. The Navy is exploring both “mothership” and “swarm” models for unmanned system operations, and sea bases will support and be supported by unmanned systems. ESPC’s long-term outlooks of tropical cyclone formation and path will be important to operate sea bases effectively. Finally, ensemble predictions also facilitate modeling of large energy flows such as El Niño Southern Oscillation or the monsoon, which, combined with other sources of environmental intelligence, will enable decision-makers to be proactive.

As deployed units operate under full or partial emissions control, ESPC will have 90-day prediction data when communications are available and will support deployed forecasters passively receiving data from the Global Broadcasting System. Unmanned systems, especially undersea unmanned systems, will operate with increasing degrees of autonomy, and ESPC can help with environmental information even if communications are sporadic.

A critical secondary benefit of an improved global modeling capability is that follow-on regional models, such as one focused on predicting electromagnetic (EM) effects and radar energy ducts, will be more accurate when driven by ESPC. This improvement will allow better prediction and dynamic management of the EM spectrum to enable secure communications within, to, and from a deployed strike group. EM performance likewise will be essential for unmanned systems, both in the timely communicating of anomalous data back to monitoring stations and for managing communications within a swarm or other self-forming networks, particularly as individual unmanned systems and swarms become more autonomous and interconnected with deployed U.S. weapon systems.

Overlaying ocean and atmospheric models, even at coarse resolutions, leads to greatly improved prediction of tropical cyclone formation, storm track, and storm intensity, including rapid intensification—a phenomenon not currently well predicted by storm models. As extreme weather events increase, often with devastating effects, U.S. capability to forecast tropical storms, Arctic seasonal conditions, monsoon intensity and timing, and so on will be indispensable to maintain a forward force on the seas and protect resources at supporting sites.

In addition to improving tropical cyclone prediction, ESPC will enable statistical analysis of possible storm tracks—although a track may be statistically favored, the second- or third-most likely paths may be quite different. The statistical spread between them can enable more intelligent decision-making and force-deployment planning, especially in the Pacific. It also can lead to successful prepositioning of forces and logistics, as well as faster re-engagement forward to strategic locations.

The advanced and coupled physics of ESPC will open new areas of high-resolution support for operations. In many areas of combat operations, U.S. forces will be able to take advantage of a more precise, more accurate, and longer-timeline forecast to carve out “razor’s edge” advantages over adversaries whose weapons may outperform those of the United States and whose land-based sensors may outrange Navy shipboard systems.

ESPC in Future Conflicts

The applicability of this system becomes apparent when envisioning a crisis in the South China Sea that deteriorates into conflict. Based on ESPC’s long-range probabilistic model output, commanders could determine weeks in advance where specific manned and unmanned platforms could safely operate. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance planning from the seafloor to space would be informed of future environmental conditions that could affect collection opportunities. Imagery of Chinese force deployment areas would be optimized for cloud-free collection windows. Signals intelligence collection assets would be best positioned to take advantage of atmospheric ducting, thereby increasing detection ranges to gather vital intelligence. And operational security of U.S. forces would be enhanced through ionospheric propagation prediction, which would give commanders more accurate high-frequency radio-wave propagation prediction days in advance.

Environmental prediction that gives U.S. commanders this type of edge for planning and operations is not wishful thinking. It is near at hand. The Navy needs to understand it and prioritize it.


Captain Smith is a career naval intelligence officer currently serving as Information Warfare Commander for Carrier Strike Group Nine in San Diego, California. He previously served as Commanding Officer, Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey, California.

Captain Robinso n is a career oceanography officer currently serving as Director of West Coast Operations, Naval Information Warfighting Development Center in San Diego, California. He previously served as Commanding Officer, Naval Oceanography Special Warfare Center in San Diego.

Commander Hermsdorfer is a career oceanography officer currently serving as Commanding Officer, Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command in Stennis, Mississippi. She previously served as Operations Officer at Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey.

Mr. Kerr is currently Technical Director at Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center in Monterey. He graduated from San Diego State University in 1989.

 

 

 
 

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