Navy ship strengthens forecast power

Petty Officer 1st Class Terry Crain can generate more accurate weather reports faster with the Tarawa's new computers.

When soldiers take to the battlefield, military meteorologists have to get them accurate weather reports. Even the smallest mistake can lead to casualties.

Troops in Afghanistan have come to rely on weather reports generated from studies of the ocean floor and from satellites, compiled aboard Navy aircraft carriers and amphibious ships such as the USS Tarawa.

The need for accurate forecasting prompted the Navy to upgrade its meteorological systems aboard the Tarawa for faster computing, more bandwidth and better energy efficiency.

Scrubbing the DEC

For three days in January, technicians aboard the Tarawa removed two old, bulky Digital Equipment Corp. servers and replaced them with rackmountable Dell PowerEdge 1550 servers with 1.2-GHz Pentium 4 processors, 73G of storage and Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 .

The new machines provide instant weather reports that are updated several times an hour, said Jim Tanahill, manager of the weather center on the Tarawa. They let Navy meteorologists create complicated graphics and maps, tasks for which the old systems fell short. The old system also used more power and had a larger footprint.

'The old servers were really huge,' a technician said. 'These use less power, less air conditioning and reduced space.'

The reports they provide are crucial to the high-tech warfare of today's military.

'When you think of the bombs we have dropped in Afghanistan, ... they were smart bombs highly affected by weather conditions,' Tanahill said.

Accuracy in weather forecasts is important enough to warrant daily briefings with senior officers aboard Tarawa.

'We brief the higher-ups on the weather. They see what the weather is, and then they make the decisions on what they're going to do,' Tanahill said.

Forecasting was much more difficult using the old system, Tanahill said. Only two forecasters at a time could compile weather reports. The process took technicians up to four hours, Tanahill said, and by the time sailors and Marines received the information, it was often outdated or inaccurate.

Today, five people can work on the system at once, pulling instant weather reports, Tanahill said.

Looks like rain

'We're breaking molds of how we do the weather,' said Richard Williamson, a spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego.

The efficiency of the system may let the Navy cut a few positions in the weather center, said Jay Bowling, executive officer aboard Tarawa. He said the system made it so much easier and quicker to download pictures and maps that some meteorologists and technicians may be reassigned to other jobs.

The new system features switches that control access to the Non-Classified and Secret IP Router networks. Authorized users can toggle between the networks, eliminating the need for a separate room to perform classified tasks, Tanahill said.

'We can make any computer in here a forecaster station,' Tanahill said.

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