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Support on all fronts

Think of any major global weather-related crisis event from the past year. The chances are, the Joint Operational Meteorological and Oceanographic Centre (JOMOC) was working hard behind the scenes - and even on the front line - distributing information to relevant parties.

Jointly manned by the Met Office and the Royal Navy, JOMOC serves as the main centre for producing and distributing worldwide environment information for both the UK's armed forces and NATO customers, to support strategic planning, overseas operations and exercises. It may be based four floors deep underground within the Northwood Command Centre, part of the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) in Northwood, but its reach is global.

Its activities range from supplying routine forecasting and analysis for ongoing operations, to assessing long term climatology and its impacts on defence operations. It also supports the Mobile Meteorological Unit (MMU) - a sponsored reserve unit of the RAF whose members undergo both military and meteorological training and are deployed on operations around the world.

A glance at JOMOC's recent activities reveals the sheer breadth of its scope. In 2014 alone, it advised the UK aid effort in response to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone called Operation GRITROCK, supplied forecasts in the search for both the missing British yacht Cheeki Rafiki and flight MH370. It supported Operation SHADER in aiding refugees in northern Iraq followed by the subsequent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) activities and kinetic strikes in the area. It also supports Operation TORAL, the ongoing Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan by supporting the MMU forecaster on the ground in Kabul as well as many planned exercises across the globe.

It also advised the defence community on tropical storms and other extreme weather events throughout the year. In the case of Typhoon Hagupit, JOMOC worked with the Met Office's Global Guidance Unit (GGU), issuing defencespecific severe weather assessments that helped the UK Government both to support the Philippines' own meteorological service and make its own decisions on whether UK aid would be needed.

Almost everyone at JOMOC has clocked up significant experience working with the army, RAF and Royal Navy, and many have worked as part of the MMU in the field. This depth of experience makes a difference: "It helps in understanding the kind of operational stresses involved and how to communicate with our customers," explains Nick Roe, Senior Operational Meteorologist and Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force Regiment at JOMOC.

Moving with the times

Much has changed since JOMOC was first established in 2008. Back then, its main focus was on wind, weather and waves and how these affect the tactical battle space.

Today, it's a different story. As technology has advanced with developments in ISR and satellite communications technologies, planning at both the strategic and operational levels of command have taken centre stage. This, in turn, has created a greater need for accurate information about environmental conditions and their impacts on military assets.

Nick explains, "As technology develops, the weather becomes a more limiting factor. A guy on the ground isn't too bothered about the rain, whereas an aircraft would be - especially if it's trying to look at the ground."

Here's where JOMOC can step in, supporting routine ISR activities by delivering satellite forecasts that determine when such an aircraft will be able to see the earth below.

But it's not just technological advances in the defence sector that has effected a step change in how JOMOC works and what it delivers. Improvements in the Met Office's own models have led to more accurate forecasts. This, in turn, has changed the way the defence community operates.

"A few years back, organisations such as PJHQ did not always plan using our forecasts," explains Adam Thornhill, Contingent Land/Air Senior Operational Meteorologist at JOMOC. "This has since changed, mainly as a result of procedures put in place after Typhoon Haiyan, and my role which is embedded in the defence community, they now have increased trust in our capabilities and put operational plans in place based on our forecasts."

The deployment of RAF Sentinel - a battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft - is a case in point. In the past, its crews would put poor performance of its radar down to faulty equipment, not realising that the real culprit was the environment. Today, the RAF uses JOMOC's forecasts to plan and position RAF Sentinel in a way that reduces the affect of the environment on the radar and optimises the return signal.

Serving the defence community

Operations evolve and change - and so do the needs of JOMOC's customers. Besides providing routine products, JOMOC's contingency arm is always on call to respond to new requirements from customers anywhere in the world, particularly from front line stations such as air bases or ships at sea. How this information is delivered is up to the customer. So an established base with a secure internet connection will have the capacity to receive PowerPoint files and images. But sometimes it's as simple as a quick phone call or even text message sent to an operative standing at the top of a hill with a satellite mobile phone.

This level of flexibility is critical. As operations become increasingly complex with joint and coalition forces working together, access to timely intelligence and tailored advice about the environment has never been more important. The last year was a busy one for JOMOC - and looking at the global political and security situation this year, or the next, is unlikely to be any different.