On a moonless night in October 2001, an American helicopter lifted off from an airbase in Uzbekistan, banking south on a covert mission into Afghanistan. Inside was one of America’s most elite and unknown special operators, hand-selected for a job so important that the wider war on terror hinged on its success.
In New York and Washington, D.C., the funerals continued. Families gave up hope of a miracle rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But if this soldier succeeded he would never shoot his gun and no one outside the military would know his work.
He was a weatherman.
More precisely, he was a special operations weather technician, known as a SOWT (pronounced sow-tee). As the Department of Defense’s only commando forecasters, SOWTs gather mission-impossible environmental data from some of the most hostile places on Earth.
They embed with Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers. Ahead of major operations they also head in first for a go/no-go forecast. America’s parachutes don’t pop until a SOWT gives the all-clear.
That was Brady Armistead’s job as his helicopter rumbled toward a strip of desert 80 miles south of Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban government. He had a satellite forecast calling for clear skies. But satellite forecasts depend on ground data, too, and there was nothing from Afghanistan.
Five years earlier, when the Taliban seized power, it granted sanctuary to Al Qaeda and ruled by a strict interpretation of the Koran. No television or movies, mandatory burkas for women and long beards for men — plus no weather reports.
The Taliban considered forecasting to be sorcery. They fired the country’s 600 or so professional meteorologists, shelled the Afghan Meteorological Authority, and burned the country’s vast climatological archives.
That created a blind spot in global weather data, which is typically pooled and shared between the world’s governments. The Pentagon felt it had a fix in SOWTs like Armistead, jump-ready scientists with the God-given guts to do the weather behind enemy lines.
The dropzone approached and Armistead watched through night-vision goggles as a sandstorm melted the ground and blurred the horizon. The pilot pulled the aircraft into a hover, letting Armistead fast-rope 60 feet down into the void below. The weatherman was accompanied by a small team of Air Force combat controllers, commandos trained at seizing airfields and managing traffic in the sky.
By dawn they had traversed several kilometers of desert, scaled a mountain and dug into a ledge, where Armistead started to work. In the days that followed, he used laser rangefinders for cloud height, night-launched weather balloons for upper atmospheric data, and a pocket meteorological wand for everything else.
The result was a daily “nowcast,” which he compared against the computer predictions. He adjusted the forecasts, tweaking the estimate to match the reality and running the calculations again. He wanted to be as close as possible to clear skies, moderate temperatures, calm winds, good visibility and air dense enough to support flight, which was no guarantee in a high-altitude, hot environment.
I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.’Brady Armistead
By day three Armistead felt ready. A thousand miles away, General Dell Dailey, the head of Joint Special Operations Command, felt ready, too. On a tarmac in Uzbekistan, 199 Army Rangers double-knotted their boots and pilots fired the engines on four MC-130 Talons. As night fell on October 19, Dailey asked for final word from the front.
“Conditions favorable,” Armistead wrote in a secure text message.
“Roger,” replied Dailey, adding his initials. “Force will launch.”
So began the ground war in Afghanistan. The Army Rangers seized an airfield and created Camp Rhino, the first American base in the country. Their mission also marked the start of a dangerous new era for meteorologists like Armistead, guardians of unmanned aircraft and commandos in low-flying helicopters. Both assets are extremely weather-sensitive. A satellite can fly overhead, but combat meteorologists liken the quality of such data to shaking a box to guess what’s inside.
Video: Reading the sky
“We get the ground truth,” said Armistead, speaking publicly for the first time about his work. “I’ve done plenty of missions where it’s like, ‘No kidding, don’t step off the porch, bad guys, because you’re going to step on me.’”
The Grey Berets, as they’re called — in recognition of their storm-colored headgear — have been around in some capacity since World War II. Over the years, however, their mission has been stymied by a tangled chain of command, inconsistent training and a requirement that all SOWTs begin as desk meteorologists.
That’s all changed.
In 2008, in response to demand for SOWTs and a rash of weather-related accidents, the Air Force quietly created career field 1WXOS, the first official class of commando weathermen. The field has allowed Air Force Special Operations Command to expand recruiting, signing kids as young as 17 and then sending them 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, according to military sources, and their work has helped nail pirates, free hostages and respond to humanitarian disasters. Overall, their ranks have tripled in recent years, with more growth expected. No position in the Air Force is a higher priority for recruiters.
But the work of SOWTs is still invisible to the general public; it’s often overshadowed by members of the military’s rougher quarters, who rarely seem to tire of mocking their colleagues with the weather balloons. That’s why so many SOWTs — among more than two dozen operators and forecasters, from teenage recruits to proudly broken-down old guys — opened up to NBC News.
“In special operations most of the failures have weather as a causal effect,” said Rip Coleman, a former director of environmental services for Joint Special Operations Command. “The weather is going to make or break a mission before it even takes off,” added Dusty Lee, a recruiting, accessions and selection superintendent for Air Force Special Tactics, the branch equivalent of the Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. “There are never enough of us.”
Video: Weather & warfare
This is the story of the combat weatherman’s long road from desk jockey to war hero. But it is also a view of conflict from the inside in an age of environmental change. A time when some of the most important commandos in the military don’t kick down doors and when the greatest threat to human security may not even be human.