A - Overview
Weather conditions were a major concern during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. One observer with experience in the region noted that coalition forces would "face a steep learning curve in coming to grips with weather prediction throughout the area of operations."(1) "Roughly 90 percent of the annual rainfall occurs between November and April, most of it in the winter months from December through March."(2) Air Force climate data shows an average of 50% cloud cover over Baghdad in December and January, declining to almost 40% in February. This season is characterized by "fog, low ceilings, clouds and rain. None of these conditions are conducive to bombing or photo reconnaissance."(3)
Heavy cloud cover is normal in January and February. This season is called the Shammal (north), for the heavy winds that can cause large sand-storms. Low ground fog is also a problem during this season. Additional weather problems follow in the Khamsin (fifty, the approximate duration in days) season, which runs from "the end of February and reaches its peak in April. During this time, the landscape is regularly lashed by high winds averaging 35 to 45 miles per hour that stir up savage desert sand storms. The storms are frequently followed by the haboob, which is the Bedouin term for 'the worst possible combination of things.' These brown thunder storms race along, embedded in the sandstorm itself, dumping tons of mud-ladden water as they go... A typical khamsin depression will cover an area of 60 to 100 miles in diameter, and last from 36 to 48 hours... Under such conditions, radar is hampered, reconnaissance is difficult."(4)
However, in mid-February, Lt. Gen. Kelly asserted that "We have also very closely studied the weather and the terrain, and we don't see anything there that would inhibit us from accomplishing our mission. The sandstorms are normally very localized -- you can fly around them, you can work through them, you can go to a different time, so I don't really believe that would cause us a problem."(5)
B - Space Segment
At the outset of Desert Shield there were two DMSP weather satellites in orbit. A third DMSP was launched on 1 December, since the older of the satellites in orbit had already surpassed its three year design life, and the other was approaching the three year point by February 1991.(6)
DMSP 5D-2 /3 S- 8 6/19/87
DMSP 5D-2 /4 S- 9 2/03/88
DMSP 5D-2 /5 S-10 12/01/90
Although the American military is a major user of data from the civilian low altitude weather satellites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Air Force also maintains a constellation of two Defense Meteorological Support Program (DMSP) satellites. The DMSP spacecraft are very similar to their civilian NOAA counterparts, and are manufactured by the same contractor using many common subsystems. The fourth DMSP 5D-2 was launched in early February to replace the second DMSP 5D-2, which had reached the end of its operational lifetime.
C - Control Segment
DMSP satellites are controlled from the Consolidated Space Operations Center in Colorado Springs, CO.
D - User Segment
Data is stored on tape recorders on the satellites, for transmission to ground stations at Fairchild AFB, WA, and Kaena Point, HI. The data is relayed by commercial communications satellites to processing facilities at the Air Force Global Weather Service Global Weather Central at Offut AFB, NB, and the Navy Fleet Numerical Oceanographic Center at Monterey, CA. The Air Force planned to purchase six 545 kg DMSP mobile terminals for Desert Shield Commanders.(7)
According to Martin Faga, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space, "the nice thing about DMSP is its highly detailed information and of course its directly downlinked to user terminals. Virtually all large navy ships have them."(8) But another account noted that "although the Air Force developed some mobile terminals of the Defense Meteorological Support Program, the complicated units were too expensive to field in large numbers. To get at least a modicum of weather data, Army units began buying civil satellite receivers developed for television stations. They leave DMSP behind when they go to the field."(9)
No permanent ground-segment associated with DMSP is located in the CENTCOM theater, although aircraft carriers do have the AN/SMQ-10 terminal, and a number of Mark III and Mark IV mobile receivers are operated by the Air Force.(10) The Air Weather Service 2nd Weather Wing at Kapaun Air Station provides meteorological support to a variety of NATO functions, and may have also supported CENTCOM.(11)
E - Operational Applications
According to Lt. Gen. Thomas Moorman, commander of Air Force Space Command, "weather is absolutely critical over there. In those cases where you have to see a target to strike it with guided bombs, you want to know what the weather is over those targets. With the vast areas we are talking about, satellite weather is just perfect."(12)
"Since mid-December, wind has replaced heat at the fundamental concern... Sudden dust storms spring up almost without warning, sometimes grounding aircraft and turning a bright sunny afternoon into a creamy gray twilight... Desert Shield got a taste of what the wind could do during the pre-Christmas visit of Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Army Gen. Colin Powell. An ambitious itinerary of visits to various military installations around northern Saudi Arabia had to be sharply curtailed because sandstorm grounded the VIP helicopters. Dust over one airbase forced the visitors airplane -- the military version of a Boeing 707 -- to abort one landing attempt before touching down on the second try... in general (sandstorm are) short-lived and will be confined to specific areas. Dust may darken one major airport in eastern Saudi Arabia for hours but leave another airport 20 miles away bathed in sunshine."(13)
"Every hour the Patriot ground-to-air missile battery guarding the airbase calls for wind data to feed into the computer that controls the missiles. Every six hours the Air Force's chemical warfare defense installation calls for a 'downwind' message: wind direction, strength and whether the weather system is stable or unstable."(14)
"Capricious weather patterns can still play havoc with flight operations, as was demonstrated in the early stages of the Iraq campaign. Although a considerable portion of coalition air assets are considered to be 'all-weather,' the tactical photo-reconnaissance aircraft providing post-raid damage assessments are not."(15) Weather played a significant role throughout the air campaign, with inclement weather reducing air sortie rates on 21-22 January,(16) and on several occasions in mid-February.(17)
Although the weather is not a problem for some attack aircraft, such as the F-15E, F-111, F-117 and A-6E, which are equipped with targeting radars, other attack aircraft require clear weather for operations. Applications of DMSP weather information include sandstorm tracking, as well as forecasting the impact of the use of chemical weapons.(18) According to US Space Command, DMSP makes it possible to "see the sand storms as they are building on the Arabian peninsula."(19)
On 22 January, Iraqi forces set fire to two oil refineries in southern Kuwait. "The fires, which poured thick jet-black smoke into the skies over the Kuwaiti desert, were detected by American satellites this morning, Defense Department officials said..."(20)
In early February, addressing the question of the timing of the commencement of ground operations, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Richard Neal noted that "our J-2, our intelligence officer and his, probably the biggest staff we have here in the staff of CENTCOM, his folks are very much concerned with the weather and its effect on operational matters.... we look at the weather for the past four, five, six years. It's all put into the equation as to what would be a good time for doing any type of operation. Sea state is another thing; wind factors for airborne operations. All these things are very critical, and the CINC is briefed every day on the weather. He looks out 72 hours to find out, in fact, what the weather's going to be not only today, but for the next 48 hours above today."(21)
Weather was cited as a major factor in the timing of the initiation of the ground campaign. "Because the ground offensive will be accompanied by a major surge in air sorties -- on official yesterday estimated that sortie rates could double for a short time to more than 5,000 a day -- US commanders were loath to begin without a forecast of three days of clear weather. Weather was the only military factor that could have altered the date of the attack, (Defense Secretary) Cheney said last night. Ground commanders wanted to know where winds would blow vast clouds of smoke from burning oil fields."(22) "A US Army lieutenant colonel assigned to the 1st Marine Div. as a fire support officer said that... dense smoke from Iraqi-set oil well fires also prevented CAS (Close Air Support) during some periods... Weather was good as the thrust began, and favorable winds blew away smoke from burning oil wells. But as the Marines approached the Burgan oil field, the wind changed, and smoke cut visibility."(23)
F - Operational Limitations
Weather has been a problem in moving forces from Europe to the Persian Gulf. Weather satellites and supporting weather forecast systems did not provide adequate support to Operation Imminent Thunder, an amphibious landing exercise planned for the Saudi coast in mid-November. The landing was "scrapped because -- after two abortive attempts -- hovercraft were unable to make the much vaunted amphibious landing. The exercise, designed by American planners to step up psychological pressure on Iraq, backfired because account had not been taken of the high winds and heavy seas on the Gulf Coast at this time of year,"(24)
"In scheduling the war, military planners timed the first attack to coincide with the absence of moonlight and with forecasts of clear weather. But 17 hours after the first bombs were dropped, what military planners described as the worst stretch of bad weather in 14 years engulfed Iraq and Kuwait. The bad weather forced pilots to hit their carefully plotted targets out of sequence, which meant that Iraqi air defenses stayed up longer and chemical weapons storage facilities also initially remained intact."(25)
During the first week of the air campaign "rain and fog in Iraq forced some allied pilots to return to base without dropping their bombs... Two squadrons of F-16A fighter bombers returned to Dhahran yesterday with bombs still in place. 'The weather was bad in the target area so they were not able to expend' their bombs, said Lt. Col. Tom Webster, a maintenance officer with the 138th Air National Guard Tactical Fighter Squadron from Syracuse, NY. These aircraft -- whose pilots must rely on their own eyes to target their bombs -- are used exclusively for daytime operations.... Laser guided missile... are useless in rain and fog."(26) It was reported on 22 January that "more than 200 missions had been cancelled in the last 24 hours because of bad weather."(27) "The heavy rains turned the Saudi Arabian desert into mud, and the US Army VII Corps had rough going" on 21 January, digging tanks out of the half-meter deep mud.(28)
According the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Tony McPeak, "the thing that hurt us the worst... was certainly the poorest weather in 14 years in the Baghdad and Kuwait area. I say 14 years, because we in the Air Force only have 14 years of good climatological data. Maybe this is the worst weather in 100 years, for all we know. It was at least twice as bad as predicted. As a result, we lost a lot of targets, especially for the F-117A, where low cloud cover prevented them from acquiring the target..."(29)
According to one report in late January, "Allied intelligence officials believed they had pinpointed the whereabouts of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein one night last week, and warplanes were dispatched to the site, but the storm front that blew across central Iraq prevented bombers from striking there..."(30) But this report was subsequently strongly denied by Maj. Gen. Robert Johnston, CENTCOM Chief of Staff. Another "senior Pentagon official commented 'We go after command and control targets, and if he happens to be there, great."(31)
On 10 February, a "return of fair weather over much of Iraq and Kuwait permitted allied aircraft to launch 2,800 sorties..."(32) But on 18 February, some "bombing missions were canceled and others were diverted to secondary targets because of thick cloud cover, but pilots still managed 2,400 sorties..."(33)
In his briefing at the conclusion of Desert Storm operations, Gen. Schwarzkopf noted that prior to the initiation of the ground campaign "we were very concerned about the weather. The weather was going to get pretty bad the next day, and we were worried about launching this air assault. We also started to have a huge number of atrocities of really the most unspeakable type committed in downtown Kuwait City, to include reports that the desalination plant had been destroyed.... Based upon that, and the situation as it was developing, we made the decision that rather than wait the following morning to launch the remainder of these forces, that we would go ahead and launch these forces that afternoon."(34)
Ground combat operations by VII Corps on 26 February were complicated by thunderstorms, but the American forces "swept across the desert through pelting rain and stiff winds.(35) Sandstorm on the evening of 27 February blinded laser rangefinders.(36) For elements of the 101st Airborne Division south of the Euphrates River, "Mud and weather turned out to be the main enemy. Rain had turned the marshy fields to deep clinging goo... Helicopters sank to the tops of their wheels. The ground convoy, with trucks bogged down in the mud, was stalled for nearly a day. By midday today (27 February), some units still had not been resupplied with water or food. High winds delayed the second lift, scheduled to reinforce the first wave with 1,000 more troops, until last nigh."(37)
As a result of this inclement weather, "Apaches came close to running out of fuel when the tanks they were supporting outraced supply lines."(38) With American forces near Basra, many Apaches "sat parked on the open desert like wasps with no sting, having outrun their logistics. They were targets rather than killers... Had the battle continued and turned in their direction, on squadron commander said he had only 100 pounds of fuel in his helicopter -- only enough to take it a few miles. Large stockpiles of Hellfire missiles, the Apache's main anti-tank weapon, also remained crated in rear areas, miles away."(39)
At the end of Desert Storm, Gen. Schwarzkopf noted that when the ground war started, "we had great weather for the air war, but right now, and for the last three days (25-27 February), its been raining out there, its been dusty out there, there black smoke and haze in the air. It's an infantryman's weather -- God loves the infantryman, and that's just the kind of weather the infantryman likes to fight in. But I would have to tell you that our sights have worked fantastically well in their ability to acquire, through that kind of dust and haze, the enemy targets... A very, very tough air environment... the bad weather, it gets tougher and tougher to use the air, and therefore the air is acting more in an interdiction role than any other."(40)
Weather may have been a factor in the Iraqi's failure to use chemical weapons. "... Vice Adm. Stanley Arthur, commander of US naval forces in Desert Storm, said he was convinced that an abrupt shift of the wind from a southerly direction at the beginning of the ground war was a deciding factor in Iraq's restraint. "I'm pretty sure the poor (Iraqi) folks who are sitting in the field looking at the prospect of this stuff blowing right back on them simply decided against them,' Arthur said."(41)
G - Alternative Systems
Additional support has been provided by "civil weather satellite receivers. Commercially developed for televisions stations, these units supplement a relatively limited number of mobile Defense Meteorological Satellite Program terminals. Images received on both systems help warn Army and Air Force units about impending sandstorm."(42)
Air Force weather officers in the theater are using Army Space Command equipment to acquire weather imagery from the European METEOSAT geo-synchronous weather satellite for fast updates on cloud cover.(43)
H - Iraqi Capabilities
Israel and Saudi Arabia began censoring their weather condition and forecast information broadcasts shortly after the start of the war, to deny this data to the Iraqi military (Iraq had limited its own weather transmissions for some time, and had cut off Kuwait broadcasts immediately after the August invasion).(44) Observers familiar with the region suggest that this has been a common practice for some time.(45)
Iraq was capable of receiving weather imagery transmitted by the American NOAA low altitude weather satellites, in addition to the European geostationary METEOSAT spacecraft, the Soviet low-altitude Meteor satellites, and the Chinese Feng Yun. The Iraqis are known to have Automatic Picture Transmission terminals for the NOAA satellites, and the "data could be useful for Iraqi military flight or Scud missile planning and for other military purposes potentially harmful to US troops in the region. For example, the spacecraft often image dust storms that could be militarily significant."(46) Unlike the DMSP military weather satellites, these civilian satellites transmit unencrypted imagery and data, making it impossible to deny this information to Iraq without also denying it to others in the region, including American military forces.
Paul Knight, a meteorologist at Pennsylvania State University noted that "There's a pretty good correlation. Evening or early-night cloud cover seems to correspond with the likelihood of attack."(47)
DATE West Iraq Scuds Fired South Iraq Scuds Fired
Cloud Cover At Israel Cloud Cover At Saudi Arabia
17 January Cloudy 8 Cloudy 1
18 January 4 Cloudy
20 January Cloudy 10
21 January Cloudy 6
22 January Cloudy 1
23 January Cloudy 1 Cloudy 5
This was not the first time that American weather satellite imagery had been used by a military foe. During the Vietnam war, while American forces made extensive use of weather satellites, there were indications that "the Chinese and possibly the North Vietnamese also were processing daytime satellite photos. Sometimes, intercepted surface observations reported bad weather when the satellite photos indicated just the opposite."(48)
I - Net Assessment
Gen. Colin Powell noted that "we're not going to go to war based on weather forecasts. There are ways to work around the weather whenever we would conduct the operation... Weather cuts both ways. When the clouds come in, the temperature drops so you lose a little overhead observation but you gain lower temperatures."(49) Noted military space analyst Paul Stars concluded that "Weather satellites are probably the unsung heroes. They probably made major contributions in terms of planning air operations."(50)
1. Bayles, Fred, "Winter Weather in the Desert Another Obstacle," The Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 January 1991, page 7-A.
2. Metz, Helen, editor, Iraq - A Country Study, (US Library of Congress, Washington, DC, May 1988), page 77.
3. Gabella, W.F., "Formidable Natural Hazards Await US Coalition Forces," Armed Forces Journal International, March 1991, page 36-38.
4. Johns, R. Kent, "The Real Desert Storm," The New York Times, 15 February 1991, page A35.
5. DoD News Briefing, 16 February 1991, page 5.
6. Kiernan, Vincent, "DMSP Satellite Launched to Aid Troops in Middle East," Space News, 10 December 1990, page 6.
7. Kiernan, Vincent, "DMSP Satellite Launched to Aid Troops in Middle East," Space News, 10 December 1990, page 6.
8. Faga, Martin, (Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space), Interview, 20 September 1990.
9. "Air Force Studies Space Hummer Terminals," Military Space, 11 March 1991, page 1-3.
10. Desmond Ball, "The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, vol. 39, 1986, pp 43-45.
11. "A High-Tech Eye on Europe's Weather," Jane's Defense Weekly, 19 December 1987, page 1439.
12. "The JDW Interview," Jane's Defense Weekly, 9 February 1991, page 200.
13. Gugliotta, Guy, "Desert Wind Whips Up Problems," The Washington Post, 30 December 1990, page A36.
14. Gugliotta, Guy, "Desert Wind Whips Up Problems," The Washington Post, 30 December 1990, page A36.
15. Ropelewski, Robert, "Testing Time for Hardware in the Gulf," Interavia, February 1991, page 5.
16. Sherry, Michael, "Allied Bombing and the Illusion of Mastery," Newsday, 3 February 1991, page 41.
17. Atkinson, Rick, "Soviet Proposal Falls Well Short, Bush Says," The Washington Post, 20 February 1991, page 1, A9.
18. Kiernan, Vincent, "DMSP Satellite Launched to Aid Troops in Middle East," Space News, 10 December 1990, page 6.
19. Kiernan, Vincent, "Satellites Play Key Role in Swift Gulf Victory," Space News, 4 March 1991, page 1, 20.
20. Shenon, Philip, "Iraq Sets Oil Refineries Afire, As Allies Step Up Air Attacks," The New York Times, 23 January 1991, page A1, A6.
21. CENTCOM Briefing, 11 February 1991, page 6.
22. Gellman, Barton, "Gut Judgement Seen As Key to Decision," The Washington Post, 24 February 1991, page A25.
23. Lenorovitz, Jeffrey, "Allies Fly Defensive Missions After Air War Smashed Iraq," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 11 March 1991, page 18-24.
24. Walker, Christopher, "Doubts over Armour and Desert Isolation Sap Morale of Troops," London Times, 21 November 1990, page 12.
25. Schmitt, Eric, and Gordon, Michael, "Unforeseen Problems in Air War Forced Allies to Improvise Tactics," The New York Times, 10 March 1991, page 1, 16.
26. Bryant, Carleton, "Heavy Clouds Hamper Daytime Air Raids on Iraq," The Washington Times, 19 January 1991, page A13.
27. Gordon, Michael, "Iraq's Military Reported Hurt, But Not Halted in 5 Days Raids," The New York Times, 22 January 1991, page A1, A9.
28. "The Persian Gulf War," The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 January 1991, page 12-A.
29. DoD News Briefing, 15 March 1991, page 5.
30. Gellman, Barton, "Air Strike Against Saddam Foiled by Storm," The Washington Post, 25 January 1991, page A1.
31. Apple, R.W., "US Says Iraq Pumps Kuwaiti Oil Into Gulf," The New York Times, 26 January 1991, page 1, 4.
32. "Iraq Rebuffs Iranian Move, Cheney Returns With Report," The Washington Post, 11 February 1991, page A19.
33. Apple, R.W., "2 US Ships Badly Damaged by Iraqi Mines in Persian Gulf," The New York Times, 19 February 1991, page 1.
34. CENTCOM News Briefing, 27 February 1991, page 2.
35. Atkinson, Rick, "Allies Surround Republican Guard," The Washington Post, 27 February 1991, page A1, A29.
36. Fialka, John, "The Climactic Battle: Iraqis Are Stunned By Ferocious Assault," The Wall Street Journal, 1 March 1991, page 1, A4.
37. Kifner, John, "Mud Is the Strongest Enemy as the 101st Takes Central Iraq," The New York Times, 28 February 1991, page A7.
38. Pasztor, Andy, "As the Gulf War Begins Its March Into History, Analysts Praise Success but Study the Failures," The Wall Street Journal, 6 March 1991, page A10.
39. Balzar, John, "Forward US Copter Post in Iraq Not Meant to Be Apache Country," The Los Angeles Times, 1 March 1991, page 7.
40. CENTCOM News Briefing, 27 February 1991, page 9.
41. Atkinson, Rick, "No Chemical Arms Found On Battlefields," The Washington Post, 7 March 1991, page A1, A35.
42. "Space Support," Military Space, 24 September 1990, page 8.
43. "Army Space Command Demo Efforts Go Operational in Desert Shield," Aerospace Daily, 20 November 1990, page 305-306.
44. "The Day in the Gulf," Los Angeles Times, 26 January 1991, page A3.
45. Gabella, W.F., "Formidable Natural Hazards Await US Coalition Forces," Armed Forces Journal International, March 1991, page 36-38.
46. "Iraqis Still Receive Weather Data from US Satellites," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 21 January 1991, page 26.
47. Broad, William, "Iraqis Using Clouds to Cover Scud Firings, Meteorologists Say," The New York Times, 25 January 1991, page A10.
48. Brandli, Hank, "Weather Satellite Photos and the Vietnam War," Naval History, Spring 1991, page 66-68.
49. Pincus, Walter, "US Seeking to Keep Iraqis on Alert," The Washington Post, 2 January 1991, page A1, A22.
50. Kiernan, Vincent, "Satellites Play Key Role in Swift Gulf Victory,"
Space News, 4 March 1991, page 1, 20.