JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, AK, UNITED STATES --
There’s a common saying in Alaska, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.”
The axiom illustrates how quickly and drastically Alaska’s atmospheric conditions can change at the whim of an often-foreboding arctic landscape, which plays host to a joint force of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen during Northern Edge 2021.
Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members are participating in a joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces May 3-14, 2021, on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. NE21 is one in a series of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command exercises designed to sharpen the joint forces’ skills; to practice tactics, techniques, and procedures; to improve command, control and communication relationships; and to develop cooperative plans and programs.
Charged with forecasting, understanding and reporting the weather to leadership of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, is U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Derek Bolton, 1st Weather Squadron, Detachment 3, who serves as a staff weather officer, or SWO.
Bolton said SWOs are specially trained Airmen who provide meteorological expertise to Army leaders.
After 21 weeks of Air Force weather training, prospective SWOs attend the Army Weather Support Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where they learn how to tactically operate as part of an Army combat unit. Additionally, to qualify for service with an airborne unit, Bolton completed the Army’s three-week Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The Airman said his work is critical in the decision cycle of the 4/25th IBCT commander, U.S. Army Col. Christopher Landers, and his staff.
“We provide direct weather support to 4/25 for planning purposes,” he said. “Anywhere the commander goes, we go, so we jump in with him and set up the [assault command post].”
Bolton said weather can significantly affect airborne operations, and high winds or limited visibility can influence the commander’s decision to carry out airborne operations and tactically employ the brigade.
“Weather affects the jump a lot,” he said. “Back in February, we jumped in negative 20, and it got into the negative 40s after that, so he was really concerned about the safety of the unit.”
While preparing for an airborne battalion task force assault and seizure of Allen Army Airfield at Fort Greely, Alaska, during a simulated joint forcible entry operation (JFEO) as part of Northern Edge 2021, Bolton said his weather forecast would be critical for the commander’s decision cycle.
“For Northern Edge, we’re looking at clouds for the JFEO,” he explained. “It can affect the operation if they’re lower than threshold. Weather is full spectrum, it can affect any operation at any time, and we have to be available to answer the commander’s questions. That way he has the injects to make the best possible decision.”
Bolton said he was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2019 after he made the SWO transition, before moving to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, with 4/25th IBCT in summer 2020. Despite long days in the field under frigid arctic conditions, the Airman said he doesn’t regret his decision to work with the Army.
“There are a lot of opportunities on the Army side,” Bolton said. “You’re not just sitting at a desk. You get to see how you directly impact the Soldiers you are supporting.”