The U.S. military is preparing for its next fight with exercises and training that unfortunately minimize or outright ignore the adverse effects of weather and terrain. In more than two decades as a meteorology and oceanography officer, I have never encountered a staff exercise, command post exercise, Marine aircraft wing exercise, or Marine expeditionary force exercise that did not include predetermined weather on a “not-to-interfere-with-exercise-objectives” basis. Whether packaged as “exercise weather,” “canned weather,” “scripted weather,” or some other term that glosses over reality, the goal was the same: Keep the weather away from my exercise!
The environment has had an impact on every conflict in human history. Consider General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s preparation for D-Day. If planning ignored the effects of weather and terrain, he could have assumed maximum surprise. A quiet landing at morning twilight, augmented by an extended sunset, would have allowed aircraft to remain on station and provide effective air support for as long as necessary. Flattening the coastal terrain would have eliminated a key advantage from the German side, resulting in a much more even fight. Of course, this is unrealistic; no operation with any hope for success could be planned in such a fashion.
Had the battlefield selected by King Henry V at Agincourt not been inundated with rain and turned into a muddy slop, the badly outnumbered English would likely have been slaughtered in a battle relegated to nothing more than a footnote in the Hundred Years’ War, depriving humanity of its illustrious Shakespearean band of brothers.
Americans deployed to the Philippines around the turn of the 20th century would have benefited from a climate study urging them to leave their wool uniforms behind before committing to months of fighting deep in the tropics.1 Similarly, the World War II Battle of the Bulge and Korean War Battle at Chosin Reservoir would have been much different affairs in mild temperatures instead of the fierce, wintry conditions in which they were contested. In warfare, the environment always gets a vote.
In Marine Corps exercises, environmental conditions are scripted as all-or-nothing, black-and-white factors—either completely permissive or completely prohibitive. However, the environment rarely deals in absolutes; conditions are frequently marginal and require decision-makers to use analytical and risk-based processes to determine how to act in each situation.
The risks of ignoring weather were realized in the worst way during Operation Eagle Claw, a failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980. According to Paul B. Ryan in The Iranian Rescue Mission: Why It Failed:
Weather operations personnel were excluded from planning and rehearsal exercises at the JTF training areas, eliminating their ability to work with the aircrews. Furthermore, mission execution weather briefings, developed by weather operations personnel, were presented by joint intelligence officers who had little, if any, formal weather training or experience. Aircrew feedback was provided in the same indirect way. Pilots were thus unaware of the possibility of encountering suspended dust and unprepared to handle it. Integration of weather information, a vital contributor to mission success, never occurred.2
Smart Exercise Scripting
The normal exercise process involves a script of “green” weather, devoid of any operational effect, until exercise control decides to use environmental extremes as a forcing function to spur action or inaction. Imagine the difference between a perfect, sunny day and a category 4 hurricane: one is preferable to the other, but neither the wholly permissive nor the wholly restrictive nature of these circumstances requires any significant thought or analysis when it comes to deciding whether to employ capabilities based on environmental conditions. Thus, neither contains any real training value.
The Marine Corps prides itself on training as it would fight. To stay true to this mantra, it must generate realistic weather conditions that cause commanders and staffs to consider the environment as they think through the problems presented. Just as leaders carefully avoid assuming away adversary capabilities, they must be equally reticent to provide an easy and permissive exercise environment.3 This includes sea conditions and their impact on amphibious operations as well as space weather’s outsized effects on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The service can accomplish this in several ways. The first, and perhaps most obvious, course of action would be to use the actual weather throughout the exercise. Using actual data pulled from military and commercial sources would allow for the full range of product support from meteorological and oceanographic professionals. It does, however, contain drawbacks. While climatology can be used to orient a commander and staff to the expected weather effects for a given region, the weather at the time may not support the exercise training objectives. For example, an exercise notionally set in Haiti as the island is hit by a major hurricane would lack training value.
The better course is to use smart, realistic environmental scripting. One method is to embed meteorological and oceanographic professionals in the scripting phase of an exercise. By doing so, planners could generate an environmental script from actual local weather during a period in which the environment generally supports exercise objectives. Archive model data, satellite imagery, charts, and other supporting materials would help the staff meteorological and oceanographic team provide useful support and counsel throughout the exercise. This would mitigate one of the main problems that comes with environmental “injects” to the exercise—the inability to generate usable meteorological and oceanographic products not based on actual weather conditions.
Another approach would be to develop an environmental “sandbox” that could be used for exercise and training support. By setting parameters for environmental conditions and the degree to which exercise control desires operations to be affected, existing Department of Defense environmental model technology could be used to create a realistic weather scenario that would also generate usable information to assist decision-making. The model technology already exists; all the Marine Corps lacks is a simulation capability.
In 1944, General Eisenhower relied on perhaps the most consequential weather forecast in human history to ensure Allied success in the Normandy landings. Royal Air Force Group Captain James Stagg had predicted that high seas and low cloud ceilings would preclude operational success on the planned invasion date of 5 June. He thus persuaded Eisenhower to delay D-Day by 24 hours to allow the weather conditions to settle and give a better bid for success.4 Had the future President ignored his meteorologist—or worse, disregarded the environment entirely—the landings could have failed and delayed victory for many months, or longer.
Given the complex, environmentally sensitive military capabilities with which they are entrusted, commanders must pay the environment its due respect and consider its effects at every level of training, planning, and execution. When it comes to the weather, they must train like they will fight.
1. Susan L. Gordon, Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection (Nashville, TN: Tennessee State Library and Archives, n.d.).
2. Paul B. Ryan, The Iranian Rescue Mission: Why It Failed (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985), quoted in Joint Publication 3-59: Joint Doctrine for Meteorological and Oceanographic Support (Washington, DC: January 2018).
3. U.S. Marine Corps, MCDP 5-10: Marine Corps Planning Process (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, August 2020).
4. Cameron Buttle, “The RAF Weathermen Who Helped Save D-Day,” BBC News, 5 June 2019.