News story

Forecasting the weather for the RAF in Libya and Afghanistan

As the RAF fights in both Afghanistan and Libya, military chiefs are turning to meteorologists to help them plan and execute crucial operations.

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RAF Reservists have become a key component in producing weather forecasts that are used in the planning of operations around the world.

Throughout history military commanders have been hindered by the weather, but now state-of-the art equipment, satellites and quality forecasting by those at the Joint Operational Meteorology and Oceanography Centre (JOMOC) are limiting its effect and playing a vital role in operations such as ELLAMY and HERRICK.

Not only can the forecasts give detailed analysis of expected weather conditions over a certain period, but also other factors, such as heat stress, which affect those operating on the ground.

They can also give advice to engineers maintaining aircraft on the type of oil or filters that need to be used - helping the decision-makers stay one step ahead.

In Afghanistan, sandstorms can blow up in a matter of hours, hindering essential flying and ground operations and even the airbridge back to the UK.

Summer dust storms and sandstorms occur in the south west of Afghanistan, caused by high pressure that forms over northern India and Pakistan.

These have a major effect on operations, with the dust getting into any exposed mechanical equipment, including vehicle and aircraft engines, and making movement, surveillance and targeting difficult, if not impossible.

In winter, conditions are very different, but no less challenging. Temperatures fall and the first frosts can occur on relatively low ground as early as late October. As the winter takes hold temperatures can fall to as low as -10 degrees Celsius at low-level locations, but significantly colder in the mountains.

Weather systems bring cloud and rain across the area four or five times a month, falling as snow generally above around 6,000 feet (1,800m), with ground above 10,000 feet (3,000m) snowbound between December and February.

This snow cover makes movement through mountain passes difficult or impossible, with the low temperatures leading to risks related to skin exposure.

As weather systems clear to the south, strong to gale force winds can push south through the Herat-Sistan corridor and lead to significant lifted dust and sand in the west and south, assuming too much rain has not fallen.

Conditions in Libya are less extreme, but the hot dry conditions take their toll on men and machines.

Temperatures during this season are regularly above 30 degrees Celsius along the coast and approaching 40 degrees inland. In most areas temperatures as high as 50 degrees have been reported.

The higher the temperature the less efficient equipment tends to be, and as levels rise above 35 degrees some assets will not work at all, or are extremely limited.

This, together with the effect of the extreme heat on the ability of personnel to cope with significant exercise, provides challenges to commanders in the field trying to complete operations. JOMOC Ops Officer Squadron Leader Ian Matthews said:

The meteorological conditions have a big impact on operations.

The forecasts are used for mission specific briefs over Libya and Afghanistan. It is not worth putting aircraft over a target if they can’t see anything due to the weather or a sandstorm.

The RAF Reservists, who have been trained by the Met Office, support their regular Royal Navy counterparts who run the JOMOC at the Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood, West London. Using weather stations and observers around the world, including the facilities at the Met Office headquarters in Exeter, a comprehensive picture of emerging weather systems is built up and monitored.

RAF squadrons, Royal Navy ships and submarines and Army commanders will all be updated on the weather conditions.

JOMOC Ops Officer Lieutenant Commander Gareth Boon said:

We support all three Services when they move away from the UK on operations. We can provide strategic or long-term forecasts.

Aircraft such as RPASs [Remotely-Piloted Air Systems] are susceptible to weather conditions as there is no onboard pilot to adjust things when they are coming into land. They have very fine tolerances.

Certain thermal conditions during the day affect infrared cameras and a lack of ambient light at night will affect the use of some electronic equipment.

We will advise on the use of appropriate clothing and what type of oil or filter should be used on an aircraft for any impending weather condition.

The JOMOC also supports a number of adventurous training exercises undertaken by British Service personnel.

Most RAF and Royal Navy stations around the world have a dedicated Met forecaster who is part of the Mobile Met Unit (MMU), which in turn is part of the JOMOC.

Squadron Leader Matthews is also the Officer Commanding MMU, which deploys engineers and forecasters on operations.

Presently there are four forecasters based at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan as part of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) and two with 906 EAW in Gioia del Colle in Italy supporting Operation ELLAMY:

We have a small team of engineers at RAF Scampton and forecasters who will deploy anywhere in the world. Within 12 hours of the UNSCR [United Nations Security Council Resolution] 1973, a team was in Gioia.

They can set up satellite communications and provide product as good as we do at Northwood or Exeter, giving the guys on the ground the information as they need it.

Why temperature’s a hot topic for the RAF

Joint Operational Meteorology and Oceanography Centre

Mobile Met Unit

Published 11 May 2011