WASHINGTON — Hacks, leaked documents and information operations orchestrated through social media were the pinnacle of information warfare in the last couple of years. But for the U.S. military, there is another sphere leaders are eyeing: weather.
In response, some branches have brought weather units and related data into the information warfare fold.
Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh, commander of 16th Air Force, told C4ISRNET in a September interview that environmental intelligence and the service’s weather wing proved to be “incredibly capable [of] handling a lot of big data and then being able to make sense of it, understand how weather is impacting adversary decision-making.”
The 16th Air Force was created in 2019 and is the service’s first information warfare command. It brought the 557th Weather Wing under its purview along with intelligence, cyber and electromagnetic spectrum organizations.
That wing has three key missions under the context of information warfare: identify and create space in multiple areas to ensure friendly forces can operate with near impunity; predict adversarial behavior based on environmental conditions; influence adversarial behavior.
“Weather operations achieve U.S. decision advantage and imposes costs on U.S. adversaries. That’s our goal, that’s what we’re trying to get after,” Col. Patrick Williams, commander of the 557th Weather Wing, said in a November interview. “We apply science to missions to generate outcomes.”
For its part, the Navy also integrated weather into its information warfare activities with Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
“When we talk about and we think about information warfare, it’s really about do we have the greatest and the best understanding of the battlespace,” Rear Adm. Ron Piret, the command’s chief, told C4ISRNET in a December interview.
Information warfare is “not only a recognition of, ‘Hey, what is going on at the moment,’ but what can we predict into the future that then allows us to not only ensure the fleet safety but also maximize or optimize the fleet’s lethality and its maneuverability, both in space and in time. That’s how we think about information warfare, and certainly oceanography is a central role in that.”
For the 557th Weather Wing, Williams said its members solve problems for customers. For example, a combatant or air component commander might approach the wing with a problem set, which is solved using weather or meteorological principles.
“A neat way to look at this is we truly believe that weather drives behavior,” he said. “If I apply that same principle because the laws of physics don’t change with political boundaries … in the Pacific: Hey, why does that Chinese fleet take a hard left turn? Well, when you overlay a weather map on top of that, it makes a whole lot of sense.”
Weather data can also help friendly forces make decisions regarding assets and operations. From a defensive perspective, it can provide units with information about assets or people to move or evacuate — especially if they’re in the way of a forthcoming storm — and what runways are unusable, or even run models to help with the recovery of downed assets.
“How the ocean is going to behave with the passing of a typhoon or hurricane or any weather system certainly impacts the surface ships as well as what’s going on in the atmosphere for safety of flight or the right platform being planned or made available for any type of operation,” Piret said. “Our ability to know the current battlespace environment better than anyone is critical. ... If we know what’s going to happen in the environment sooner and farther out than our adversaries, then we can utilize our fleet and our joint forces to a greater extent.”
Weather data and operations also have an offensive component. Though vague, given the sensitivity of operations, Williams did say the idea is to deter the adversary by denying and projecting information that will encumber the decision-making process.
“Whether it is, ‘Hey, I want to expose the fact that the adversary cannot do something’ or ‘They don’t have a capability of doing something that the world may have thought they had,’ ” he said. “I know they’re bogged down in that particular area, now’s the best time to strike.”
From the Navy’s perspective, Piret said the service tries to understand an adversary’s limitations and capabilities to create models to indicate if the enemy is likely to use certain platforms in specific conditions.
Broadly, this weather support can occur at all levels of warfare, from the strategic to the tactical ends.
Some of these weather capabilities and forecasts even extend beyond Earth’s terrestrial borders.
“Most people don’t realize it, but there actually is weather in space,” Williams said.
While this doesn’t resemble rain or clouds, the sun is emitting particles, and electrons and protons can bombard the Earth from space, sometimes disrupting communications.
“If the sun is doing weird things, some frequencies may not be as usable as other frequencies during one of those storms,” Williams said. “If we know that, now we have an ability to predict maneuver space within the satellite world, within the space world.”
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.