Eumetsat Disputes U.S. Air Force Claim that It Reversed Itself on Indian Ocean Coverage

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PARIS — The head of Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization on April 30 denied a U.S. Air Force allegation that Eumetsat had reneged on a promise to maintain weather coverage over the Indian Ocean, thus forcing the Air Force to scramble to find replacement capacity.

Alain Ratier, director-general of the Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat, said his organization has always been clear that it was using temporary spare capacity to provide weather-satellite coverage over the Indian Ocean and that this could not be assured indefinitely.

“We have never reversed course on this,” Ratier said in an interview. “We have always said we would make spare capacity available for the region when we had it, on a best-efforts basis. As of 2017 we no longer have spare capacity — a fact that has been known to everyone for at least three years. Nothing has changed in that respect.”

U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James
U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Jeff Fisher

Ratier was responding to April 29 comments by U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah L. James in testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

On two occasions during her testimony, James said Europe in 2014 had committed to maintaining a satellite over the Indian Ocean, only to reverse itself several months later.

James said the Air Force was proposing to launch an old Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite, DMSP-20, to help fill the gap. It is unclear how that will be accomplished since DMSP satellites are intended for polar low Earth orbit. Eumetsat has been covering the Indian Ocean region with a Meteosat satellite in geostationary orbit.

“We were looking to the European allies to cover some of these gaps [in meteorological coverage] for us, and indeed that is why last year we said we were not going to launch that satellite,” James said, apparently referring to DMSP-20.

“However, within several months of that, the European allies reversed themselves,” James said. “They’re not going to replace the satellite now, which brings us back to the gaps.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the subcommittee’s chairman, expressed shock that the Europeans – neither Eumetsat nor any other European entity was named — could just say no to a previous commitment, and that the Air Force would just as quickly step in to spend several hundred million dollars as a result.

“How is it that they automatically say they are not going to fund this satellite, and we automatically say we will?” Sessions asked.

Meteosat-7 imagery
Meteosat-7 imagery of a storm hitting northern Bangladesh in April 2014. Credit: Eumetsat

James reiterated that a European commitment had been made in 2014 only to be taken away.

“If you go back a year, at that point their position was that they were going to replace it,” James said of the Meteosat-7 satellite now over the Indian Ocean slot, which is nearing retirement. “So we felt like we would have that ongoing reliance. But then they changed their minds and now they’re not going to replace it. It will soon be at the end of its life, which brings us back to the fact that we have a gap.”

Eumetsat’s public comments since it began providing spare capacity over the Indian Ocean have consistently been that the Indian Ocean coverage was never meant to be permanent.

Ratier said it so happened that since the late 1990s the organization has had a series of aging Meteosat satellites — Meteosat-5, Meteosat-6 and now Meteosat-7, that were no longer needed for Eumetsat’s core mission at 0 degrees longitude — the only geostationary mission that Eumetsat’s member governments have declared as an obligation.

“We have never changed our view on this and there was no reversal of decision,” Ratier said. “It’s really a shame that this is transpiring in this way. We have said that we would try to figure out something as part of a multilateral effort given the availability of spares. We don’t have any spares now.”

Eumetsat plans to retire Meteosat-7 from its current 57.5 degrees east location in April 2017. Launched in 1997, the satellite will have operated four times longer than its design life. “It has been a miraculous performance,” Ratier said. “But we cannot base an operational service on this happening all the time.”