Developments in technology are at the core of most modern discussions on military advancement. However, no matter how advanced technology becomes, it will continue to be influenced by the environmental conditions within which it operates. If we as the Australian Defence Force (ADF) are to optimise the way we can employ our assets, our conceptual understanding of the environment and how it can impact those assets must evolve as fast as technology does.
In my view, the Australian Amphibious Force is leading the way in this through its integration of specialist assets, by sharing knowledge and by working together to evolve and mature the developing capability. In the amphibious world it is increasingly clear that we have to ‘weaponise’ meteorology if we are to fight and win in one of the most challenging tactical environments.
A Changing World: Big Data, Meteorology and the Tactical Operator
Atmospheric and oceanographic conditions are the elements of the ‘operating envelope’ influencing both friendly and enemy forces that neither can control; yet often they can have the biggest impact on the success of an operation or effect.
In a data rich environment, access to weather information continues to grow with increased computer processing power able to run complex computer algorithms fed by widespread observation stations and high resolution satellites. Information is becoming more readily available via open source, with websites displaying a myriad of data output in varying degrees of coloured animations and interactive maps (and varying degrees of accuracy) for use by the average windsurfer or avid weather enthusiast.
But, how does the military make sense of all of this information? What aspects are relevant to the tactical operator? How can strategic, operational and tactical plans and decisions be shaped and optimized? An answer already exists in the Navy through its Meteorology and Oceanography (METOC) capability, and qualified meteorologists who bridge the gap between scientific analysis and tactical impacts.
Weaponising the METOC: Joint Warfare and the Australian Amphibious Force
Amphibious warfare in Australia is evolving and maturing at a rapid pace. As we continue to conduct more complex joint exercises, such as the recent Sea Series, we advance our processes and procedures, broaden our knowledge of joint assets and forces, and become more refined and informed in our planning processes. Generally, as individual operators, we’ve always had an understanding that the environment impacts our communications, our sensors, our aircraft and our ships or small boats. But while there is always an intention to try to plan for weather impacts, competing issues or priorities tend to ‘trump’ the impact of the weather on our day to day operations. The complexity of the amphibious battle space, however, means that the environmental conditions almost inevitably become a ‘weapon’ which can be exploited to not only ensure tactical effects can be achieved, but also optimised.
How can this be I hear you ask? I can just ‘google the weather’ right? Well, as an example, heavy rain showers can have a negative impact to aircraft which may be trying to lock onto a target while conducting close air support, but some rain may be an asset to ground troops trying to cover the sound of their movement through the bush or reduce their dust signature when travelling by dirt roads. Alternatively an increased swell may mean that a landing craft can’t land troops on the beach; however, some wave action can make enough noise to cover the insertion of pre-landing force elements in zodiac craft. While increased sea states may reduce the ability of friendly small boat operations, they may also reduce the enemy’s capacity to operate Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) which may be advantageous for other operations. These are just some implications of having fidelity in the weather forecast.
At all times weather risk must be balanced with weather tactical advantages; not an easy thing to do in an uncertain science and under pressure. It is the forecast that provides the critical decision-support tool for commanders. This relies not only on the forecasting skill of the METOC, but the integration of weather analysis in all stages of planning and scoping tactical effects by the headquarters (HQ). Balancing the potential risk and gain of the weather is central to amphibious operations, and the METOC and our ability to access big data is increasingly a battle winner.
Personal Observation: A Rapidly Learning Defence Force
During the past few years (operating primarily with the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) and recently supporting the Amphibious Task Group (ATG) as the embarked METOC on Sea Series), I have observed a marked change in the level of respect and capacity for the HQ staff to understand and factor in the impact of environmental considerations to operations. I have also noted the growth of my own personal understanding of how my specialist field can be employed. This understanding has evolved in line with the maturity of the HQ, particularly its ability to be more flexible, but also as a result of the shared understanding that has developed from operating in the joint environment where specialist assets often come to the forefront.
Not only are we as a Defence Force learning how to use our specialist assets, but the specialists are learning how they can be useful. The impact of being able to accurately forecast and understand weather conditions is one of those elements shaping the way we look at the battlespace: understanding how we can weaponise meteorology will allow the ADF to go one step further and use that shaping effect to our tactical advantage.
About the author: Christie Underwood is an officer in the Royal Australian Navy. She recently acted as the METOC for the Australian Amphibious Task Group on major amphibious exercises.
This is the second in a series of ‘Messages in a Bottle’ written by the Amphibious Task Group staff based on their experiences from the SEA SERIES 2018. Keep an eye out for more in Australian blogs for the profession of arms.