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Extreme weather blunts the US military's technological edge

Michael Peck   

Extreme weather blunts the US military's technological edge
  • Severe weather degrades the accuracy of navigation systems and hampers military operations.
  • Climate change has made weather patterns more erratic and harder to forecast.

More extreme weather is scrambling the high-tech systems that have given the US military its edge.

For example, severe weather can degrade navigation systems such as GPS and sensors on precision-guided munitions. Heavy rain ground aircraft and drones, intense heat exhausts troops, dust storms gum up tank engines, and storms damage ships at sea. Smoke and sandstorms blind aerial drones. Commanders and troops need to have a good idea of what the weather will be like the next day or the next month — forecasts that are getting fouled by the growing unpredictability of weather patterns.

"Reliably forecasting extreme weather's frequency and intensity to inform strategy is perhaps the most important challenge for the US and allied militaries to adapt to or mitigate a changing climate, because it is imperative that operations and campaigns are feasible meteorologically," warned James Regens in a recent essay for the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Unexpected weather has always frustrated the best-laid plans of commanders. Had rain not turned the ground muddy the night before the battle, Napoleon might have been able to move up his artillery and win at Waterloo. Surprise dust storms crippled helicopters in the daring American operation to rescue hostages from Iran in 1980. And rain and rough seas almost caused the D-Day landings in June 1944 to be cancelled. But in military meteorology's finest hour, sharp-eyed Allied weathermen were able to forecast a break in the storms that the Germans didn't foresee, which allowed the invasion to achieve tactical surprise.

However, these mishaps reflect weather, which is a short-term phenomenon. Climate refers to long-term patterns, including the probability of severe weather. While climate change has become a highly politicized issue, there is general agreement among scientists that the Earth's climate is getting warmer.

This doesn't mean the weather will be hotter everywhere all the time, but it does indicate that severe weather events — heat, rain, even snow — will be more intense when they happen. One example is California in 2024, which went from years of drought to "atmospheric rivers" that dumped massive amounts of rain that caused mudslides and damaged homes and roads.

This can be catastrophic for farmers and people living in flood zones. But it's equally bad for militaries, especially those with advanced capabilities such as the US armed forces, which rely on delicate and interconnected systems that can be degraded by weather.

For example, meteorological information is key to the position, navigation and timing (PNT) systems that enable many guided weapons and communications networks to function and coordinate. "Precision fires, aircraft flight operations, surface warship maneuver, ballistic missile trajectories and satellite launch windows to support intelligence collection and communications systems all depend on reliable PNT solutions grounded in meteorological projections," wrote Regens, an intelligence expert and founding partner of Antiphon Solutions, an Oklahoma-based analytics firm.

This puts a premium on developing models and technologies that can offer accurate short- and long-term weather forecasts, and do so even as scientific understanding of the impact of global climate change evolves. The strategic implications are profound. For example, knowing the rate at which Arctic ice is melting — creating new shipping channels and uncovering mineral riches — is of great interest to many nations.

Arctic warming creates a "significant homeland defense and national security challenge for US and allied decision-making for North America and NATO's northern flank in Europe," Regens told Business Insider. "Add to this mix the humanitarian missions the US military does in response to floods, monsoons, and other weather problems, and the Pentagon and NATO need to recognize the risk extreme weather in a changing climate poses to military operations."

However, Regens points to another problem: getting timely weather forecasts to those who need them. "Military forecasting works fine as long as units have secure network access to near-real time numerically predictive weather information for planning and executing missions," Regens told Business Insider.

The problem is that tactical units on the front lines, or in remote areas, often lack the connectivity to receive weather reports. "NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], the private sector and universities are actively working to improve global weather models," Regens said. "The missing link is compressing this capability into a tactical package for warfighters."

"This requires a major effort to meet the requirements of tactically disaggregated, independently operating units for immediate reliable data," said Regens. "Otherwise, they are going to have limited success firing highly lethal and expensive munitions at significant ranges."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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