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From 9/11 to SR

Despite all claims to the contrary, SR isn't "the newest SOF JOB in AFSOC"


The evolution from SOWTs to SR didn't happen overnight



Environmental Reconnaissance in OEF:
Special Operations Weather’s Leading Role

by Lt Col Joe Benson, USAF

Written in 2011

From his seated position behind the M-2 heavy machine gun in his vehicle’s turret, TSgt Ray
Decker could see everything. His lofted perch offered him vistas of the sharp profile of distant
mountains to the north, a meandering river flowing from northeast to southwest, an
unimpeded view of the horizon and the jagged rocky outcrops which flanked the dusty trail.
Riding above his four teammates, TSgt Decker, a special operations weatherman, was in the
ideal position to conduct environmental reconnaissance, exactly his purpose on this combat
patrol. Moving out from his firebase in the Uruzgan Province on that day in August 2008, Ray
could not have imagined the impact of his collection.i


Since 9/11, environmental reconnaissance (ER) has become special operations
weather’s (SOWT) leading role. SOWT personnel conducting ER were among the first U.S.
military into Afghanistan in October 2001. Since that time, SOWT personnel have operated in
every corner of the country, in both non-permissive and politically sensitive areas. The data
they collect, whether near-target, in advance of assaulting forces or on a routine patrol, have
proven pivotal in securing mission success. Today, time and effort placed on the ER mission
far exceed that which is spent on the more traditional weather functions, such as forecasting
and mission briefings. ER training consumes the lion’s share of time during the SOWT pre-
deployment and certification training phase, a phase that lasts over six months of the 10th
Combat Weather Squadron’s (CWS) 15-month Phased Operational, Refit/Retool and Training
cycle. So what exactly is ER?

Environmental Reconnaissance

Joint Publication (JP) 3-05, Doctrine for Joint Special Operations, defines ER as
“operations conducted to collect and report critical hydrographic, geological, and
meteorological information.” ii For the record, there is no “weather reconnaissance”, and
while weather collection plays a major role in ER missions, it is but one component. SOWT
personnel conduct ER in order to collect on all aspects of the environment: the terrain, rivers,
surf-zone and littoral regions and, of course, the weather. More specifically, SOWT assess the
terrain for trafficability as well as for potential landing zones, determine the likelihood and
impacts of an avalanche, assess river systems for fording operations and flood forecasting, 9
collect surf zone and tidal data to determine optimal beach landing sites, and collect weather
observations in order to establish localized weather trends and in support of ongoing or near-
term operations.

Formal Tasking

ER rightly falls into the domain of SOWT. SOWT’s ownership of the mission is backed
not only by Air Force and joint doctrine as well as Air Force (AF) Tactics Techniques and
Procedures (TTP) but also official US Central Command (CENTCOM) and Special Operations
Command-Central (SOCCENT) taskings.

In the winter of 2007, SOCCENT levied two standing taskings on its deployed SOWT
personnel. The first tasking was avalanche assessment and it had two purposes; one was
humanitarian-related while the other dealt with operational mobility and reach. The second
tasking launched SOWT’s involvement in the riverine environment. Over the last three years,
river assessment has quickly become SOWT’s foremost mission in Operation Enduring
Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan.

Joint Publication (JP) 3-59, Meteorological and Oceanographic Operations, AF Doctrine
Document (DD) 2-07, Special Operations, and AFDD 2-9.1, Weather Operations provide
additional direction. AFDD 2-7 underscores SOWT’s ownership of the ER mission: “SOWT
members are able to independently operate *author’s emphasis+ in permissive and semi-
permissive environments or as an attachment to special operation forces (SOF) teams in
hostile areas. SOWT are the only force *author’s emphasis+ in the DOD organized, trained, and
equipped to perform special reconnaissance operations in support of environmental
requirements for the JFC (Joint Forces Commander).”ii

Since 2007, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) has
executed six concepts of operations (CONOP) directly related to the ER mission. SOWT liaison
officers (LNOs), serving on the J-3 staff (Operations), used the aforementioned doctrine and
TTP in crafting these CONOPs. For these multi-week CONOPs, the most recent of which is
ongoing, SOWT personnel were the supported force. The results of these missions have
earned high praises. LTC Chris Riga, 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Force Group’s commander, while
serving as the CJSOTF-A J-3 in spring 2008 commented, “I wish I had a SOWT for all my fielded
teams.”iv He’s not alone. As a career field, SOWT has been consistently among the top three
most deployed career fields since 2006. A surging personnel tempo (PERSTEMPO) is proof:
OEF commanders can’t get enough.

What is it about ER that has drawn such praises in OEF? Let’s break down this multi-
faceted mission examining its components and detail its many positive contributions. We
begin with weather.

Weather Assessment

First and foremost, SOWT personnel must be talented weathermen. Much like their
conventional counterparts, SOWTs learn weather forecasting during tech school at Keesler
AFB, MS. As with any technical skill, weather forecasting is a highly perishable one. It must be
sustained through repetitive training and pre-deployment exercises. As mentioned above,
SOWT personnel spend six months conducting pre-deployment and certification training. A
portion of that time is dedicated to recertifying critical weather forecasting skills. Aiding the
10th CWS in this task is the 23rd Weather Squadron (WS).

The 23rd WS, one of the Air Force Special Operations Command’s (AFSOC) newest
squadrons, has helped facilitate SOWT forecaster training by opening their weather operations
center to visiting SOWTs. As AFSOC’s weather “hub”, the 23rd WS is a unique position to help
sharpen a SOWT’s technical training. Since its inception in July 2009, the 23rd WS has assumed
close to fifty percent of all weather forecasting in support of SOF in OEF.v By providing the
bulk of weather forecasting support, particularly of the longer term variety, SOWTs can focus
their attention on the short-term forecasts, otherwise known as the “Nowcast.”

According to AF TTP 3-3, Nowcasts are the by-product of “. . . atmospheric conditions
[and] the local effects of the terrain.”vi SSgt Travis Sanford was the SOWT attached to a
CJSOTF-A SOF team which became pinned down during a major troops-in-contact (TIC) event
in northwestern Afghanistan. After hours of fighting, Travis’s team had taken casualties,
casualties needing immediate exfil (exfiltration or evacuation). But the weather was
questionable. Using five hours of collected weather observations, Travis issued a six-hour valid
Nowcast back to higher headquarters. Based on his forecast, medical evacuation (MEDEVAC)
helicopter crews concluded the cloud ceilings in the passes would stay above required
minimums permitting the recovery to proceed to extract wounded Americans.

There are numerous similar examples. After nearly nine years in OEF, Nowcasts have
proven invaluable in supporting operations. Yet while a SOWT’s forecasting acumen must be
sharp, his ability to observe and promptly transmit weather observations is the gold standard.
A weather observation taken at or near a target is often the deciding “GO/NO GO”
factor prior to mission execution. The value of ground-truth weather conditions is only
amplified in places like Afghanistan, where the deadly amalgam of weather and terrain have
combined to take too many American lives.

In 2009 alone, SOWT personnel took and disseminated over 20,000 weather
observations from their remote outposts while executing reconnaissance or other SOF
missions. Each observation served to paint a clearer picture of Afghanistan’s dynamic
environment, a picture which, without the presence of a SOWT, would not be possible. In the
extreme, its value can be measured in lives saved. Such was the case in February 2009 at a
firebase in Uruzgan Province.

Staff Sergeant Tom Howser’s timely and accurate reporting arguably saved a critically
wounded teammate’s life following a firefight with insurgent forces. MEDEVAC was called in
to retrieve the wounded soldier, but was initially unable to fly through the pass leading to the
team’s firebase. That’s when Sergeant Howser took charge.

A skilled weather observer, Sergeant Howser noticed the subtle changes in air pressure and winds, changes which
indicated drying conditions and a lifting of the low blanket of clouds shrouding the pass. His
recommendation to the MEDEVAC team: launch the helicopters, you’ll get through. Sure
enough, they launched and got through.vii The soldier was air evacuated to a nearby
treatment facility and survived. In this case, minutes mattered. Undoubtedly, weather
observing made a difference.

Two hundred miles to the west of Sergeant Howser’s firebase, weather observing was equally as indispensable
when Staff Sergeant Alex Eudy and his SOF team hit a catastrophic improvised explosive device (IED) during a
high risk mission in the Farah Province.

Despite being thrown 100 feet from the wreckage of his vehicle, Sergeant Eudy had the
presence of mind to pass weather reports to responding MEDEVAC assets dispatched to
recover four wounded operators. Not only had Sergeant Eudy been thrown from his vehicle,
he also suffered serious injuries to both legs, injuries which prevented him from standing.
Sergeant Eudy dealt with the pain, maintained security of the crash site and vectored
helicopters to his location. Thanks to Sergeant Eudy, the MEDEVAC assets were provided
critical situational awareness on the weather prior to arrival. What’s more, Sergeant Eudy’s
presence of mind helped mitigate MEDEVAC’s speedy response that, in turn, helped minimize
the extent of his and his teammates’ injuries.

On weather observing alone, ER’s prominent role in OEF is critical. But as indicated
earlier, weather is but one component of this multi-faceted mission.

Avalanche Assessment

SOCCENT’s formal tasking to conduct avalanche assessment has had a profound impact
on SOWTs in the 10th CWS, namely in the area of training and equipping. Almost immediately,
AFSOC secured the funds to purchase avalanche reconnaissance kits. SOWTs were equipped
within weeks enabling personnel to attend accredited mountaineering schools such as the
American Alpine Institute in Washington State where SOWT students earned a level 2
avalanche certification.

The purpose of avalanche assessment is to “ensure safety of special operations team
movement, enable humanitarian efforts and evaluate conditions for future operations (e.g.
alternate landing zone (LZ) and resupply)”.viii Thus, conducting avalanche assessment means
getting up to altitude, often well over 12,000 feet. SOWT professionals examine a mountain
side’s snow field to determine the potential of an avalanche. Selecting high altitude, alternate
LZs provide options for rotary wing assets when crossing vast mountain ranges and rugged
terrain; the Hindu Kush falls into this category.

On the humanitarian side, avalanche assessments can forewarn mountainside villages of
impending disasters that subsequently enable life-saving evacuation operations. These
actions also serve to strengthen positive perceptions of Coalition forces among the indigenous
population. In Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, some villages are routinely decimated by avalanches
and certain mountain passes, such as the Salang Pass, face the fury of avalanches nearly every

Terrain Assessment

ER’s third responsibility is terrain assessment. Assessing the terrain has numerous
implications, not the least of which is vehicle trafficability. As JP 3-05 states, along with
hydrographic and meteorological information, ER missions attempt to collect and report on
“geological” information.ix

SOWT personnel determine the trafficability of unimproved surfaces (e.g. trails) or open
terrain. In much of Afghanistan, terrain assessments factor heavily into mission planning for
mounted operations. Trail conditions in the summer may be remarkably different than those
in the winter, when snow and mud can hinder a team’s movement. Thus, SOWT-collected and
disseminated terrain assessments must be made throughout the year to account for seasonal
variations. Relative to the enemy, SOWT personnel on the ground identify “rat-lines,” paying
particular attention to those in contested territory. This information may serve intelligence
analysts in drawing more far-reaching assumptions on enemy lines of communication, cache
sites and cross-border infiltration routes.

Capt Colin Caldwell, while attached to a SOF team in late 2008, conducted numerous ER
missions in disputed areas of western Afghanistan in support of future ground reconnaissance
operations. His terrain assessments showed striking differences between summer and fall.
Vehicles were slowed by moist ground conditions when the rains began in winter. By late
winter, the wadis had begun to fill.x This further aggravated vehicle traffic. Still, the question
remains: is terrain assessment worth the risk? Why not use high-resolution satellite imagery

Colin’s missions prove the value of terrain assessments in support of planning and
conducting combat patrols and other operations in enemy-infested territory. Even the highest
resolution imagery, terrain maps and mapping tools such as Falcon View cannot discern the
subtle variations in road and trail conditions. When selecting LZs, whether for fixed-wing or
rotary wing operations, knowing the soil particle size can be critical. Helicopter LZs comprised
of fine, silty soil run the risk of “brown out” conditions on landing. Thus, trying to exfil a team
under fire from such an LZ adds additional risks to the force, risks that might be avoided with
SOWT personnel as part of an advance force reconnaissance team. Yet of ER mission’s five
mission components, none have attained as far-reaching impacts as the river assessment

River Assessment

Less than a week after SOCCENT’s official tasking in early 2007, SOWT professionals
deployed in to the Uruzgan Province began conducting river assessments. Since that time,
SOWT forces have completed 135 vital river assessments. Determining a river’s current speed
in order to assess river traversing options may be an easy one to grasp. Conducting a river
assessment, however, involves a significant amount of additional data collection.

As with a weather observation, a full river assessment includes several elements that,
when taken together, present a profile of a river system at a given position. The speed of a
river is not uniform. A river’s depth at various points, the clarity of water, the river bottom
composition, the bank slope and profile, natural or man-made obstacles, the high water mark
and the water temperature—all of which are elements of a total assessment—vary over space
and time. Not only must data be collected at points across the width of a river, but also up
and down the banks as well. As a result, usable assessments must include several observation
points gathering the aforementioned elements as well as others.

Much of the data can be collected from bridges, using small boats and rafts or from
fixed positions on the shore. Something as simple as images from a digital camera offer useful
data. Often times, a thorough assessment requires getting into the river and getting wet, as
Staff Sergeant Joey Cedillo did in June 2010 when assessing the upper Helmund River.

Without a bridge or boat, Sergeant Cedillo was forced to set up a zip-line across a
seventy-foot expanse of river. Using a simple carabineer, he snapped into a harness and
slowly worked his way across the swiftly moving, chilly water taking speed, depth and clarity
measurements every six feet.xi

As the example shows, collecting data from a river can be a risky endeavor. What’s
more, river assessment missions may expose the SOWT Airman and his supporting element to
harassing enemy fire and maneuver.

Given the risk, why do it?

Joint Publication 3-06 sums it up this way: “Riverine operations exploit the advantages
of the waterways for movement, capitalizing on mobility to find, fix, and destroy hostile
forces”.xii Gathering the data, therefore, becomes necessary for successfully negotiating this
environment, whether for transport, assaulting the enemy, escape and evasion or simply
crossing. According to JP 3-06, successful riverine operations “. . . require current, useable
[environmental] intelligence in a timely manner in order to plan and direct operations, achieve
mission success, and protect [the] force”.xiii JP 3-06 lists the collection of “. . . hydrographic
information, including waterway depth, length, width, bottom composition, tidal ranges and
currents, and bank characteristics (e.g. length, bedrock/soil composition and trafficability)” as
important elements of river assessment.xiv

When time was of the essence and decisions on route selection proved life-saving,
SOWT personnel expedited their data collection and advised their ground force commanders.

In March 2009, Master Sergeant Gary Pelletier, a SOWT Airman attached to a team in the
Uruzgan Province, made one such river assessment while under enemy fire. Sergeant Pelletier
assessed the perfect crossing point, taking into account current speed, depth and bank slope.
With the enemy bearing down, he quickly directed his SOF team and their Afghan partnered
force across the river and out of enemy contact.xv

Civil Affairs, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, US Agency for International Development and
other government agency-sponsored agro-commerce, transportation and bridging projects
have benefited from river assessment missions conducted across Afghanistan. As an example,
SOWT-collected riverine data taken between February and June 2010 helped engineers settle
on the most suitable location for a bridge in the southern Uruzgan Province. More recently,
nine river assessments taken in southern Afghanistan helped to determine the final site
selections for nearly $22 million in bridging and transportation-related projects.

The Tactical ER Report (TERREP)

The component missions of ER all seek to gain information from differing environmental
realms, whether from the sea, land, river or atmosphere. Most ER missions result in the
collection of data from more than just one of the environmental spheres thereby maximizing
the data-collection mission. Even on a short-term daylight patrol, SOWT personnel actively
collect and record environmental conditions. On certain missions, they query host nation
civilians for additional, “Farmer’s Almanac”-like environmental insights. A great deal of data is
acquired during an ER. SOWT Airmen tie it all together into an extensive, yet coherent report
called the Tactical ER Report (TERREP). These reports have become so popular that AFSOC
made it into an official Major Command (MAJCOM) form.

An unintended beneficiary of the TERREP has been AFSOC’s intelligence directorate.
Since reviewing their first TERREP in July 2008, intelligence specialists at AFSOC and at the
720th Special Tactics Group have converted SOWT TERREPs into nearly 100 Intel Information
Reports, or IIRs. These IIRs have proven to be a treasure trove of environmental intelligence.
National level intelligence agency specialists have crowed about the value of these IIRs and
have written over 45 glowing evaluations.xvi In fact, SOWT IIRs are responsible for satisfying
countless, long-standing requests for information on environment and terrain in the
CENTCOM area of responsibility (AOR). What’s more, evidence shows AFSOC is equally as
impressed. SOWT reporting accounts for a large chunk of AFSOC’s human-derived
information. No small achievement for a squadron of only 65, which includes LNOs collocated
with each US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) unit.

SOWT LNOs work with each of the Special Forces Groups, the 160th Special Operations
Aviation Regiment and the 75th Ranger Regiment. The primary purpose of the SOWT LNO is to
support his partnered USASOC unit. His support responsibilities extend from the O-6 level
down to the ODA or platoon. He must provide his supported unit access to the two principal
TERREP repositories: the 23rd WS and CJSOTF-A’s TIGR databases, and tailor the information
according to their unique requirements.

The Road Ahead

For the foreseeable future, ER will remain SOWT’s leading role in OEF. Regardless of
shifting operational focuses and strategic priorities, ER will play an active role and will continue
to support SOF and partnered-Afghan operations. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that
the application of ER will expand. SOWT personnel will increasingly augment their ground
collection with a growing array of unattended sensors, whether dropped in Afghanistan’s
rivers or emplaced across the country’s often inhospitable terrain. In greater numbers, SOWT
personnel will operate small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) extending the reach of their
reconnaissance capabilities. SOWT will more frequently interact with host-nation personnel
learning more about Afghanistan’s nuanced weather patterns and the general environment.

In the future SOWT Airmen will increasingly supply Civil Affairs, the Army Corps of
Engineers and other governmental agencies, such as USAID, with coveted environmental data,
the likes of which affect decisions concerning the expenditure of millions of dollars. SOWT will
continue to play an important role in this counterinsurgency operation while continuing to
hone the tactical skills training with its sister Special Tactics units and partnered Special Forces.

At Hurlburt Field, FL., SOWT Airmen will continue to strengthen their technical know-how
cycling through the 23rd WS for forecasting refresher training.

As they’ve been for nearly ten years, SOWT Airmen will be ready for the fights ahead.

To be sure, there will be risk. Executing ER will continue to put SOWT personnel into harm’s
way. Yet this will be nothing new for the men of the 10th CWS, nearly half of whom have
earned AF Combat Action Medals. SOWT Airmen will continue to operate in non-permissive
and politically sensitive environments because that is where their collected data is of greatest
merit. The SOWT cadre understands the importance of SOF missions. SOF missions are no-
fail, and no fail missions require nothing short of what their talents can provide: accurate,
relevant and timely environmental intelligence.

Two days into the mission, TSgt Ray Decker’s team became pinned down by a withering enemy
fire from two sides. Between bursts of fire from his M-2, Ray passed weather reports for
circling close air support aircraft. The team had taken casualties and desperately needed
inbound MEDEVAC helicopter. Exposing himself to even greater risk, Ray positioned himself in
order to guarantee the transmission of his reports. His environmental reporting helped
posture the helicopter and enabled the successful evacuation of one of his teammates. Ray’s
bravery would earn him his deployment’s second Bronze Star and an Army Commendation
Medal with valor.

Lt Col Joe Benson is the Commander of the 10th Combat Weather Squadron (10 CWS) at
Hurlburt Field, FL. He is a master parachutist (static line), military free fall parachutist,
demolitions supervisor, has attended numerous survival schools and is air assault qualified. In
2006, he earned the Navy Postgraduate School’s annual Pat Tillman Award given to the
school’s top special operations student.


i Raymond Decker, TSgt, Interview with the author, 11 Jan 2009.
ii Joint Pub 3-05, Doctrine for Joint Special Operations (Washington D.C., 1998), II-5.
iii Air Force Doctrine Document 2-7, Special Operations (Washington D.C., 2010), 32-33.
iv Christopher Riga, LTC, "Re: SOWT in OEF" Email to author, 30 August 2009.
v Bryan Adams, Lt Col, Interview with the author, 13 Aug 2010.
vi Air Force Tactics Techniques and Procedures 3-3, Guardian Angel and Special Tactics (Nellis AFB, NV: 2009), 13-3.
vii Bryce “Tom” Howser, SSgt, Interview with the author, 1 Mar 2009.
viii Air Force Tactics Techniques and Procedures 3-3, Guardian Angel and Special Tactics (Nellis AFB, NV: 2009), 13-29.
ix Joint Pub 3-05, II-5.
x James “Colin” Caldwell, Capt, Interview with the author, 24 Feb 2009.
xi Joey Cedillo, SrA, Interview with the author, 12 June 2010.
xii Joint Test Pub 3-06, Doctrine for Joint Riverine Operations (Washington D.C., 1991), I-1.
xiii Ibid., VI-2.
xiv Ibid., VI-2.
xv Gary Pelletier, MSgt, Interview with the author, 5 May 2009.
xvi Dan Hunsinger, GS-14, Interview with the author, 3 Feb 2010.