Militarily speaking, climate and weather play a vital role in strategy and tactics. As technology has changed the way wars are fought, it has changed the way mistakes are assessed, too. Weather is often examined as a factor in investigations into excessive noncombatant causalities, missed air strikes, and accidents (collision, allision, or aircraft mishap), among other issues.
But environmental questions are most often asked after the fact, when a detailed environmental assessment will do nothing to change the facts of what happened. To make the best decisions, commanders must have the most accurate intelligence—and weather and environmental have proven to be critical. Carl Von Clausewitz explains, “Danger is part of the friction of war. Without an accurate conception of danger, we cannot understand war.”1
Sun Tzu says, “A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle.”2 The U.S. Navy has an advantage over its adversaries in assessing danger accurately: the Navy meteorology and oceanography commands. These commands perform better than the service’s potential adversaries and will give Navy leaders the superior tools they need to win before the battles begin.
Some Tough Weather
Mother Nature has no bias toward U.S. friends or foes, let alone the innocents that are often caught in her crosshairs. In 1944, Typhoon Cobra—otherwise known as “Halsey’s Typhoon”—was responsible for the sinking of the USS Hull (DD-350), Monaghan (DD-354), and Spence (DD-512), with 790 souls lost, 100 aircraft wrecked or washed overboard, and 9 other vessels damaged.3 Admiral William “Bull” Halsey led Task Force 38 right into the heart of Typhoon Cobra for a variety of reasons, but an important one was that he received inaccurate information regarding the typhoon’s path and intensity.
In Vietnam, heat and humidity negatively affected U.S. combat operations. For example, high temperatures change air density and degrade the lifting capacity of helicopters.4 This created a logistical problem in which, depending on the temperature, more air assets could be required to move the same amount of supplies and troops or perform evacuations. Dehydration repeatedly took its toll on GIs in Vietnam, requiring them to carry more drinking water—and therefore less ammunition, grenades, and mines. Traveling by foot or vehicle across much of the country was fairly simple during the drier seasons, but, with the onset of the southwest monsoons, the story changed dramatically. Severe flooding turned the countryside, especially dirt roads and trails, into an unnavigable quagmire reminiscent of the Eastern Front in 1941 during the Russian spring season thaw in World War II.
More recently, desert operations have been hindered by dust storms and extreme heat, whether in the 1990–91 Gulf War or Operation Enduring Freedom for the past 18 years. It is impossible to prevent wind-blown dust from becoming an abrasive that causes accelerated wear on mechanical parts.6 Fuel and oil filters clog and fail more readily in this environment; this incurs additional maintenance and more frequent filter changes. Engine oil deteriorates far more quickly as well. Battery efficiency is degraded, because heat reduces the charge a battery can hold and also shortens its useful life.7 Excessive heat may cause problems with plastics and rubber breaking them down at an accelerated pace.8 And so on.
Still, Mother Nature is not always cruel, and she sometimes favors one side or the other. Ancient tree ring studies suggest that Genghis Khan and the Mongol horde were the benefactors of a long wet spell that took place over years. In 1588, the Spanish Armada set out with the intent of invading Protestant England and restoring its people to the Catholic Church, but, while anchored off Calais, France, the Armada was pummeled by the raging seas, destroying dozens of ships and killing many thousands of Spanish sailors.
One of the most historically well-known weather success stories was a forecasted break in bad weather in early June 1944 that allowed the invasion of Europe at Normandy, France, to proceed. This one event is often attributed with significantly contributing to shortening the conflict in the World War II European Theater and ultimately speeding up Germany’s surrender, sparing of thousands of lives on all sides of the conflict.
Recognize, Predict, Exploit, and Win
A hypothetical formula—High Resolution + Pinpoint Precision = Extreme Sensitivity to Environmental Factors—explains the problem for high-tech militaries. Commanders must rely on weather reports and forecasts for all mission areas. You can carpet bomb through a dust storm, but you cannot use a laser-guided bomb and send it through a window in those conditions. Special environmental support is now available for planning at all levels, and today “fake” weather is generated for exercises to influence outcomes and courses of action.
The Navy’s information warfare community—Intelligence, information professionals (IP), cryptologic warfare, and meteorology/oceanography (METOC)—brings commanders the knowledge needed to maintain an operational advantage. METOC is the smallest of the four components; however, it heavily influences all the other disciplines. Good intelligence reports for operational planning are better with weather forecasting and historical environmental trends added to the brief. Communication frequencies maintained by IPs can be hindered or enhanced depending on weather conditions, and enemy communications may also suffer, creating an exploitable advantage for the Blue team.10 Being aware of such information in advance is much better than finding out on the battlefield.
In today’s joint force, commanders take microforecasts, tides, and even lunar illumination into account with great consideration. Area-specific and real-world specialized mesoscale forecasts are commonly generated and used for training exercises and operations, helping assess where adversary units may be located and how best to conceal friendly assets to be most effective. Much precision in tactical mission planning relies on the ability to forecast with high confidence the weather for a specified period. Sometimes a single storm cell can influence the decision of a go–no go call from a commander. If the safety of our most protected asset, our people, is the top priority, then commanders need a complete picture, including weather, to evaluate risk. Mother Nature has no friends, and one must consider her indiscretion during peace and wartime decision-making. She cannot be bribed, bartered with, or bought.
Clausewitz notes that “possession of military genius coincides with the higher degrees of civilization: the most highly developed societies produce the most brilliant soldiers, as the Romans and French have shown us.”11 METOC commands will have to maintain pace with the civilian technology and the numerical weather prediction industry to provide the tools necessary for commanders to make critical decisions and maintain the battlefield advantage.
In a 2018 memo, Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis wrote: “Every decision we make must focus on lethality and affordability. . . . This requires all hands’ aggressive attention to detail in executing the budget in a matter that demonstrates sound judgement and managerial integrity.” The Navy must focus its efforts and deliver, so that it gets the biggest return in information warfare.
Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu knew of the importance of intelligence on the battlefield when he wrote: “Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.”12 Former Commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, Rear Admiral Jonathan White, put a modern twist on Sun Tzu when he said, “We need to bring the home field advantage to the away game.”13 Whether you like it or not, the effects of weather on land, sea, air and space operations and critical decision-making is of the utmost importance on the modern battlefield.
1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. And trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).
2. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B Griffith trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963).
3. Tom Claven and Bob Drury, Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue (New York: Grove Press, 2017).
4.The Arm Chair General forum.
6. Allen R. Becker, Problems in Desert Warfare, Air Command and Staff College Air University (ATC), Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, 1990.
7. Becker, Problems in Desert Warfare.
10. Clausewitz, On War.
11. Sun Tzu, The Art of War.
12. RADM Jonathan W White, USN (ret.), was the Commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command from 2009 to 2012. The author was under the command of and personally know RADM White and has heard him use this quote in numerous speeches.