Airman 1st Class Willard E. Grande II/Air Force/Courtesy NBCOn 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.
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.”