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USAF Airforce acquires supercomputer for timely, reliable and actionable global weather forecasting capability

The Air Force is one of the few organizations within the U.S. Government that has a global forecasting responsibility. Our meteorological production is more than just providing aviation weather services. We provide global weather and climate information to the Air Force, Army and Intelligence Community, said Mr. Ralph O. Stoffler, Director of Weather.

“Our Combatant Commanders demand timely, reliable and actionable meteorological information, on both unclassified and classified networks, so that they can understand the environmental impacts that affects all phases of military operations.”

Additionally, we are called to provide weather lead nation capabilities to our coalition and allied partners. We also take seriously our role of providing our model data and observations to our United States partners in order to improve the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities,” said Mr. Ralph O. Stoffler Director of Weather.

Our Total Force Airmen are trained and educated on terrestrial and space weather impacts to the warfighting mission. We strive to minimize the impact of weather threats to friendly forces while simultaneously capitalizing on weather conditions that maximize the operational advantage over enemy forces.

We must consider the full range of weather operations from climate to microscale weather events, prepared to support operations ranging from Humanitarian Assistance in partnership with departments outside the DoD, local field training events, to theater campaign plans, and major contingency operations exploiting our capability,” said Mr. Ralph O. Stoffler.

We also produce data on classified models to ensure operational security and assessment on foreign capabilities. Air Force personnel uses military tactical decision aids to correlate platform or sensor degradation with weather impacts. Our data is also fed into DoD command and control systems to ensure planning and operational impacts are mitigated or minimized.

USAF acquires supercomputer for accurate weather forecasting

Today, accurate weather modeling is dependent on a few major factors. Initial data gathering via satellite, buoys and ground weather stations provides current weather conditions at the point of collection. The ability to compile that data is a second step. The final step relies on some of the largest computing centers on earth to crunch composite conditions and forecast the likely future state of the weather.

USAF has recently provided boost to  computing resources. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center here acquired a supercomputer that is the latest step in a long-running weather prediction arms race. The system, named Thor, models global weather patterns and provides individual air bases and army units with specific forecasts for areas as small as 17 square kilometers. The computer system is comprised of nearly 1,000 individual blade servers. When constructed in May 2016, Thor was the 150th most powerful supercomputer on earth, according to TOP500, which rates supercomputer speeds.

Thor’s increased capacity allows weather Airmen at Offutt to generate initial conditions and process them. Locally produced baseline data, combined with Thor’s increased processing speed, results in forecasts reaching the warfighter in half the time. This gives forecasters and mission planners up to three extra hours to exploit forecasts. Hanscom’s acquisition process began in 2014, and development by the prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., took one full year. Northrop installed Thor in early 2016 and handed it over to the Air Force in May 2017.

“Knowing accurate weather forecasts has always been a military imperative,” said Dr. Frank Ruggiero, Thor’s lead engineer at AFLCMC-Offutt AFB, Nebraska, where the system is located. “Going back to D-Day, one of the major reasons that operation was successful was surprise. That surprise was generated partially because the Germans did not have accurate reads on weather in the North Atlantic. They thought we couldn’t invade June 6, 1944, because the weather wasn’t good enough.”

“We’re running the same modeling program as our allies in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand,” said Robert Born, Thor program manager. “That way, when we’re in joint operations, we can all be working off the same forecast and aligning our plans to the same base assumptions.”

In addition to providing a processing location for all U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army forecasts, Thor is able to provide more customized forecasts for military applications. Aeronautical forecasts include up to 80 weather gradients reaching high into the atmosphere, whereas civilian forecasts usually only cover ground reports. Thor also works to provide narrow forecasts in remote areas where military units are active, typically overlooked in more regionally-focused forecast models.

“An accurate forecast is a force multiplier,” said Ruggiero. “We know that military operations depend on weather, and Thor can provide commanders with that knowledge.”


USAF Weather Satellite Program in Disarray

The Air Force relies on an international family of systems of geostationary (GEO) and low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites to provide global meteorological coverage. This family of systems impact operational missions such as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), close air support, Special Forces, and airborne and space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

A third U.S. Air Force weather satellite that launched more than 20 years ago has broken up in orbit, Air Force officials confirmed the breakup of the long-retired Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 12 satellite (DMSP F-12) after the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, detected an additional object orbiting alongside the 22-year-old satellite. DMSP F-12, was shut down in 2008 — a process that entails burning off the satellite’s remaining fuel, releasing compressed gasses, and discharging the battery.

DMSP F-12, which the Air Force retired from service in 2008, had the same battery assembly that was implicated in the February 2015 breakup of DMSP F-13.  In February, the DMSP suffered another setback when the Air Force lost the ability to command DMSP F-19 due to an onboard power failure. The satellite had been in orbit less than two years when the failure occurred. The Air Force still has five DMSP satellites in service. The youngest, DMSP F-18, was launched in 2009. The oldest, DMSP F-14, was launched in 1997.

However, the U.S. Air Force’s effort to develop new weather satellites is in disarray. Following the cancellation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), the Air Force pursued development of a new weather satellite under the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) program. However, that program faced funding problems and delays.

The White House terminated the DWSS program and instituted the Weather Satellite Follow-On (WSF) program, which is currently undergoing risk reduction studies. However, the WSF program is itself facing multiple difficulties. The Air Force has not fully assessed all of the solutions available to address the gap in weather coverage. Furthermore, the service did not adequately cooperate with other U.S. agencies involved with weather satellites.

The weather satellites are important for Military as they provide cloud characteristics and theater weather imagery.


US AF efforts to fill gaps in weather satellites

US Air Force is seeking solutions from industry to meet data gathering needs. It is also seeking a contractor to build a weather sensor that could be deployed on a satellite as soon as 2022.

The Air Force is considering striking a deal with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would allow it to assume control of a spare weather satellite to fill a gap in coverage over the Indian Ocean, reported Space News. If the deal goes through, the 14th Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite would become the first Defense Department geostationary weather satellite, said Ralph Stoffler, USAF director of weather, at the 97th annual meeting of American Meteorological Society in Seattle.

Stoffler said coverage in that region has been challenging for the service, which typically relies on non-US satellites, such Europe’s Eumetsat’s Meteosat-7 satellite, which is scheduled to retire this year, according to the paper. Eumetsat did reposition another Meteosat satellite over the region last summer, but that only provided partial coverage.

The service also is considering trying to access Indian weather satellite images. “That would probably the more cost-effective solution,” said Stoffler. “But to have a US-owned and controlled satellite in that part of the world, certainly from my perspective, is ideal.” If USAF assumes control of the satellite, it would have to pay to set up a downlink station in the region, but it would not have to pay NOAA to access the satellite, according to Space News


Future capabilities

We are building a unified framework, which is a scalable system, which allows us maximum flexibility to run higher resolution areas, short term forecasts, and longer term forecasts for mission planning. We recognize we need to continue to improve our capabilities for areas such as remote piloted aircraft, urban operations, space weather observations and warnings, trafficability of land  forces, global water assessments, and land surface information, said Mr. Ralph O. Stoffler.

We must plan for changes in our future weather support for the next generation capabilities and needs, and the Air Force weather community needs to be quick, flexible and agile. We need the ability to assimilate our own unique military datasets from ground and aerial platforms, our organic environmental sensors, and sensors on soldiers.


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