On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an air base in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of our country’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the war on terror hinged on his success.
He was a weatherman.
More precisely, he was a special-operations weather technician, or SOWT (pronounced “’sow-tee”). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible data from the most hostile places. They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations, they head in first for a go/no-go forecast—America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all clear.
The Gray Berets, as they’re called because of their storm-colored headgear, have been around since World War II. Over the years, their mission has been stymied by a tangled chain of command, inconsistent training, and a requirement that all SOWTs begin as desk meteorologists. But that has changed.
In 2008, after a rash of weather-related accidents, the Air Force created 1WXOS, the first official class of commando weathermen. This allowed Air Force Special Operations Command to expand recruiting and send applicants through a new two-year training pipeline, the longest in the Department of Defense. SOWTs were on the ground ahead of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and their work has also helped capture pirates, free hostages, and bring humanitarian relief. They read the sky in Haiti ahead of some of the first air drops after the earthquake in 2010 and in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Their ranks have tripled in recent years, with more growth expected, signifying the deepening relationship between the military and its combat forecasters.
“The weather is going to make or break a mission before it even takes off,” said Dusty Lee, a superintendent for Air Force Special Tactics.
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To Get the Ground Truth
When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 1996, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran: no TV or movies, mandatory burkas for women and beards for men—and no weather reports. To the Taliban, forecasting was sorcery. They fired the country’s meteorologists and burned all the climatological archives, creating a blind spot in weather data, which is typically pooled and shared by the world’s governments.
As the Pentagon geared up to send troops into Afghanistan, it felt it had found a fix in SOWTs like Brady Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the guts to forecast the weather behind enemy lines. In October 2001, Armistead sat in an Air Force helicopter while it rumbled toward the desert 80 miles south of Kandahar. The pilot approached the drop zone, and he pulled his aircraft into a hover, letting Armistead fast-rope 60 feet down into a void. He was accompanied by a small team of Air Force combat controllers who were trained in seizing airfields and managing aerial traffic.
By dawn, they’d traversed several kilometers of sand, scaled a mountain, and dug in to a ledge. In the following days, Armistead used laser range finders for cloud height, night-launched weather balloons for upper atmospheric data, and a pocket meteorological wand for everything else. This comprised his daily “nowcast,” which he compared with computer predictions. He wanted an operational window as close as possible to clear skies, moderate temperatures, calm winds, and air dense enough to support flight. By day three, he felt ready.
As night fell on October 19, a thousand miles away, General Dell Dailey, head of Joint Special Operations Command, asked for final word from the front. “Conditions favorable,” Armistead wrote in a text message.
“Roger,” replied Dailey. “Force will launch.”
So began the ground war in Afghanistan. The Army Rangers seized an airfield and erected Camp Rhino, the first American base in the country. The mission also marked a new era for meteorologists like Armistead, who serve as the guardians of both unmanned aircraft and commandos in low-flying helicopters. While satellites can supply atmospheric data, combat meteorologists liken the quality of that information to shaking a box to guess what’s inside. “We get the ground truth,” said Armistead.
Warriors First, Meteorologists Second
For SOWTs-in-training, morning comes early. Long before the sun bobs up, their trucks and cars are lined at the main gate of Hurlburt Field, the home of Air Force Special Operations Command on the Florida Panhandle. Their workouts start at 7 a.m. Even at this hour, SOWTs are expected to read the skies. Forgot to roll up your windows on a rainy day? You owe the team 1,000 push-ups. Blow an outlook for chilly weather? You aren’t allowed to go home for your coat.
SOWTs don’t just predict the weather—they leverage it. They learn to use the morning dew to erase a platoon’s tracks or the wind to muffle a helicopter or the shadow of a mountain to shelter the wounded. They also watch for obstacles and opportunities, cataloging where the soil is soft, the rivers are swift, the snow is loose, or the fog is dense. With their reports, they can make America a home-turf warrior in any country. “We’re human sensors, and that’s the magic of the SOWTs,” said Major Jonathan Sawtelle, who was the SOWTs’ director of operations until last year.
Let’s be honest. There is something a bit comical about sending a meteorologist to war. The image of the ordinary forecaster is of a second-rate scientist who spends his life indoors, predicting the outdoors—and usually getting it wrong. But the new SOWTs, and the best of the old ones, are a different breed. They are warriors first, meteorologists second.
“They’re stronger, faster, and brighter than we ever were,” said Master Sergeant Tony Carson, who came in under the old system. “The challenge now is pulling these guys back, not pushing them forward.”
There are about 120 SOWTs spread across three Special Tactics teams, which also contain combat controllers and medics. These men—as of now, no women are SOWTs—represent a widening part of U.S. special operations, both in combat and in rescue efforts. And as extreme weather events increase in frequency, the Pentagon anticipates a greater number of relief and disaster-response missions.
“Can you attribute any given weather event to climate change? No,” said Sawtelle. “But is Special Tactics there and ready to take action? Absolutely. We’re a fast-reacting force, standing ready to respond to climate disasters.”
Pushing Minds and Bodies to the Limits
The SOWTs are a rare blend of brawn and brains. Their careers start with a standard military intelligence test. SOWTs need a minimum score that is 20 points higher than anyone else’s in Air Force Special Tactics—and higher than that of almost every position in the military, other than code breakers.
They need the brainpower for forecasting school—30 weeks of advanced meteorology. There they have to unlearn as much as they learn. The “thin air” around us is, in fact, thick—dense enough to support flight. An object that is “as light as air” is, as a matter of science, exerting one ton of atmospheric pressure per square foot. And the SOWTs find that predicting the weather can be as hard as following a wave across the open seas or trying to predict the first bubble in a slowly boiling pot of water.
They’re also taught that weather—and how the military works with it—can make or break a war. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army used low clouds to hide from the British bayonets on Long Island. General George Washington crossed the Delaware in a blizzard, surprising the enemy and turning the war.
As a result, the military has always been one of meteorology’s biggest patrons. Between 1870 and 1955, it launched the forerunner of the National Weather Service, opened the first graduate school of meteorology, and funded the first computer predictions. These days, the military is working to loop the entire world’s data together so that it can create forecasts for all of Earth as a single entity.
But even if that goal is achieved, there will still likely be special-ops weather technicians. During training, they get a glimpse of their value when they’re shown a nighttime picture of Earth. The cities glow, but between them, the land is largely dark, or “data sparse.” What’s the weather like in those regions? No one’s sure.
This may come as a surprise to Americans, who are the world’s most weather-wired people. We have about 10,000 professionally run surface reporting stations, which is the same amount as the rest of the world combined. We also have about 150 radar centers, while some regions of Africa have none. Asked to name the parts of the globe that lacked surface weather data, one researcher said, “The whole Southern Hemisphere, really.” Insufficient or faulty ground data is a major reason why forecasts curdle within a week and go totally rancid after ten days. Even the most precise same-day satellite forecast is a spaghetti plot of best guesses and generalities, which won’t do in war.
The physical side of SOWT training may be more demanding than the intellectual. It starts with a 500-meter surface swim, two 25-meter underwater swims, a 1.5-mile run, and timed bursts of pull-ups, sit-ups, and push-ups. Pass that, and would-be SOWTs qualify for a “selection course,” a two-week cycle of spit and sweat. They jump off cliffs, run through rivers, drag tires, and perform calisthenics made torturous by a water hose in the face—anything that can trigger a fear of drowning.
“We’re here to push them, to show them that their bodies and minds are capable of handling much more than they think,” said an instructor in a SOWT recruiting video.
If the SOWTs manage to survive that hell, they’ll find there are others waiting, including five kinds of survival school and a disaster-movie sequence of severe weather observations, tactical training, and demolition. Of those who enter the SOWT pipeline, fewer than one in five eventually receives the gray beret, said senior recruiter Lee. Recent recruits include wrestlers, water polo players, surfers, runners, and a lineman pulled off an NFL practice squad. The common denominator is a knack for tamping down the instinct to scream. “These guys are certified mental and physical studs,” said Sawtelle.
They’re also deadly. Before they deploy, all SOWTs get a coat of battle paint at the Air Force’s advanced combat training school. It’s a gym, pool, and classroom complex, and on a recent visit, the facility felt like a stroll through the pages of a spy novel. Cell phones are locked in boxes, cinder blocks above the urinals are covered with one-pagers on countries in West Africa and Southeast Asia, and reminders about the need for strict security hang everywhere.
“Loose pieces of talk are put together by our enemies for victory,” warns one poster.
In a warehouse across the street, the SOWTs keep their personal “cages”: wire-mesh closets that are piled high with beef jerky and books. “Most guys read a lot,” said Sawtelle. He pointed out a favorite: The Art of War, the Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu. “Know the weather,” Sun Tzu advised around 320 BC. “Your victory will then be total.”
Since Air Force special operators support Army, Navy, and Marine special operations detachments, SOWTs must have the guns, radios, and battle dress to join any team at any time. “We’re behind every SOF [special-operations forces] mission,” Sawtelle said. Still, not everyone in the military looks up to the Gray Berets. Some of the rougher soldiers don’t always see their value. They prank the SOWTs, stuffing their bags or lockers with balloons. Others—too tough to worry about the weather or too young or inexperienced to realize they should—ignore them entirely.
Helping Bring Down Bin Laden
Gradually, SOWTs are changing their colleagues’ minds. By the time Armistead dropped into Afghanistan, he had already earned a spot on the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (STS), the Air Force’s version of SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. (The Pentagon doesn’t officially acknowledge any of these teams and neither does Armistead, but other senior military personnel confirmed STS 24’s existence.) “Those guys were hot,” remembers a member of Delta Force, who deployed with SOWTs and combat controllers in the fierce early months of the ground war in Afghanistan. “They could swing like Tarzan, think like Einstein, and climb like Spider-Man.”
The military relied on SOWTs two years later when the United States invaded Iraq. At least three SOWTs infiltrated early. One landed in northeastern Iraq near Iran, where he watched the winds for signs of chemical warfare. Another entered in the south, surviving incoming missiles and a sandstorm that buried his sleeping bag. A third worked the center of the country to forecast clear skies for a thousand paratroopers making the first major insertion of the war.
In a role that remains classified, SOWTs also deployed in support of Operation Neptune’s Spear, the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, according to people familiar with that and similar SOWT missions. “I guarantee you there were guys out there,” said one senior official. (Special Operations Command declined to comment directly, as did Sawtelle.) Because Pakistan’s ground weather stations are spotty and far-flung, at least one SOWT was on the flight path in, while a second dug into the mountains surrounding Abbottabad to provide environmental “overwatch,” according to military sources.
Lead instructor Sergeant Travis Sanford, 27, is a perfect example of the new breed of combat weathermen. He looks like G.I. Joe: a V-bodied six-footer blessed with a kung fu grip. In 2010 in Afghanistan, he grabbed a wounded Marine by his ankle, pulled him to safety, and earned a Bronze Star for valor.
Sanford likens the military to a giant high school social scene. The special operators are like starting quarterbacks and homecoming kids, but not the SOWTs. “We’re kind of like the valedictorians,” he said. “We’ve got the 4.0 grade point average, but we can play a little too.”