Air Force forecasts with petaflops of power
By Benjamin Newell, 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs
/ Published August 15, 2019
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Program Executive Office Digital is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to build Air Force Weather’s most powerful weather computer, at an estimated 7.2 petaflops.
PEO Digital personnel at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and Hanscom worked this acquisition effort. Oak Ridge National Laboratory selected Cray, Inc., a Seattle-based supercomputer manufacturer and awarded a $25 million, five-year contract on July 29. By late summer 2020, the Air Force expects the system to be operational.
“With the new system, we will have six times the processing power as Thor,” said Robert Born, PEO Digital’s program manager for the system, referring to Air Force Weather’s current supercomputer. “Air Force Weather will be looking to provide total environmental prediction in the near future, while also combining the weather model with hydrological models and space weather models.”
Military forecasting requires not just the ground-level forecasts used by meteorologists to determine the five-day outlook, but several levels of space weather, atmospheric and in-ground forecasts, in order to build plans for flight operations and keep Airmen safe. For comparison, the federal government’s national weather service runs their forecasting models on a system rated to 5.7 petaflops.
The system is comprised of two separate, 3.6 petaflop supercomputers. Combined, the weather processing mainframe will have the power of 25,600 gaming consoles, providing enough computing muscle to run the most advanced forecasting models for the Air Force and Army.
Hydrology is important for ground forces when crossing wet areas. Because tanks and other heavy military equipment don’t traverse soaked ground as fast as dry ground, Army and Air Force combatant commanders require knowledge of conditions not just above the ground, but in the ground itself. Similarly, space weather events such as solar storms can interfere with communications and positioning equipment. Predicting these variables are part of nearly every successful military operation.
Air Force Weather’s previous system, Thor, will be in operational use just over three years, when the new system becomes operational. When the Air Force declares the new system operational, Airmen at the 557th Weather Wing at Offutt and several satellite locations will use it to run their complex forecasting models, while Thor will modified to serve Air Force Weather in a classified capacity for several more years.
“We expect this system to fall somewhere within the first 100 systems on the top-500 list of supercomputers when benchmark tests are run,” said Born. “The most important thing is that this will provide Airmen and Soldiers with the information they need to plan operations well into the 2020s.”