Why Climate Is Key to Ukraine’s Counteroffensive


As the world watches and waits for Ukraine’s spring offensive against Russia, it may surprise many observers that a deciding factor in the delay is related to climate change. It has taken longer than expected for Ukraine’s winter-frozen ground to thaw and dry due to an extended wet spring, so it has been difficult to transition into an offensive with heavy military vehicles that are vulnerable to soft ground.

Ukrainian military conducts training on Leopard 2 tanks at the test site on May 14, 2023 in Ukraine.
Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Activities regarding the climate by the Biden administration’s Department of Defense (DoD) overemphasize emissions reductions. From a warfighting perspective, the military should not focus on mitigating changes in climate but rather adapting to those changes to succeed on the battlefield — exactly as Ukraine is doing today.

A brilliant instance of using climatic conditions to achieve victory occurred during the War of 1812 in the Battle of Lake Champlain. In 1814, the Royal Navy’s Captain George Downie sailed his squadron of British ships down the lake southward and turned northwest around Cumberland Head toward Plattsburgh intent on bombarding the city. Opposing him was the U.S. Navy’s Thomas Macdonough, who commanded a small squadron. Against convention, he anchored near the mouth of Plattsburgh Bay. During his two years of service on Lake Champlain, he became aware of the impact of Cumberland Head on local wind characteristics. As the British approached the Americans, the breeze lightened and turned right in Commodore Downie’s face, forcing him to sail directly toward Macdonough’s flagship USS Saratoga. This subjected Downie’s vessel to raking fire down the full length of her deck before he could anchor and unleash his broadside artillery. Then Macdonough had his sailors haul the hawsers towing rope on his kedge anchors to rotate the ship 180 degrees so that her port guns were able to fire a devastating broadside at the British Flagship RMS Confiance. The British squadron soon surrendered.

A well-known modern example of environmental conditions impacting combat operations happened in June 1944 during the World War II D-Day landings in Normandy. Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower had tentatively selected June 5 as the date for the assault. However, on June 4, high winds and heavy seas made it impossible to launch landing craft. Eisenhower’s staff meteorologist, Royal Air Force Group Captain James Stagg, predicted that the weather would improve enough for the invasion to proceed on June 6, so Eisenhower decided to proceed with the invasion then. The key advantage that the Allies had over the Germans was an abundance of meteorological observations over the Atlantic. Due to their lack of this weather intelligence, Luftwaffe meteorological center in Paris had forecast two weeks of stormy weather. They were so sure of the prediction that even Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in command of the forces charged with repelling the Allied assault, returned to Germany for his wife's birthday. Considering that amphibious invasions are perhaps the most difficult of all military operations, the Allies needed every possible advantage to succeed — and their superiority in weather data and predictions certainly contributed to their success.

Unfortunately, the U.S. military has not always been on the good end of environmental impacts in warfare. During Operation Eagle Claw in April 1980, the U.S. mounted a complex, multi-service mission to rescue 66 Americans taken hostage by Iranian militants at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The operational plan called for a squadron of eight U.S. Navy helicopters, RC-53D Sea Stallions, to launch from the Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Arabian Sea and rendezvous at a salt flat 200 miles southeast of Tehran with six U.S. Air Force C-130 transport aircraft carrying the army assault force and their supplies.

The helicopter pilots were unprepared, however, for a massive dust storm that they encountered midway through their flight to a refueling location known as Desert One. The dust storm caused one helicopter to return to the Nimitz aircraft carrier, and it deposited dust on the salt flat that was blasted into the air during the refueling operation, which reduced visibility and led to the collision between a helicopter and a C-130. The mission failed, and eight service members died in the resulting explosion.

By 2003, the U.S. military had improved its capability to observe, predict and plan for the operational impacts of hazardous environmental conditions. While serving onboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the opening phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I witnessed a severe sandstorm on March 26, which reduced visibility from over a mile to just under 200 yards in less than an hour. I oversaw the Navy ship’s division of aerographer’s mates, who predicted the storm four days in advance, leading the Carrier Strike Group commander to direct the movement and stowage of the embarked aircraft within the ship’s hangar bay before the storm’s arrival. This ensured that the aircraft avoided severe damage, which fine dust can impart on aircraft engines and electronics. As soon as the storm eased days later, on March 29, aircraft from the embarked Carrier Air Wing 5 resumed their strike operations on Iraqi targets in support of U.S. and allied ground forces.

Just as weather affects operational planning and execution, climatology can be a critical consideration. In the months leading up to Operation Neptune Spear, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, a threshold for nighttime temperature was established, beyond which the JSOC Commander Admiral William McRaven, would call off the mission. Such a limit was calculated using the estimated weight of the fully loaded MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters flown by the U.S. Air Force as well as the required lift, which is limited in higher atmospheric temperatures. Based on the climatology of nighttime air temperature in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden’s location, McRaven set a “no-go” date to safely execute the mission as not later than May 1. The raid occurred on May 1, 2011 — right on the edge of their window.

If history teaches us anything, the risk for armed conflict will never be zero, and when we consider current threat levels, today is no exception. To be ready, the U.S. needs to consider the effects of climate on warfighting, which requires the capability to monitor and predict severe weather, flooding, temperature extremes and oceanographic conditions. Fortunately, the tools for doing this are either already in the hands of the U.S. military or readily available in the industry. We would be unwise not to use them.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC, former acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and former acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce. Prior to NOAA, he served as an oceanographer in the U.S. Navy, completing his career as the commander of the Navy Meteorology and Oceanography Command and director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change.

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