House passes bill that would send weather satellites to NRO

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A bill under consideration in Congress would move the acquisition authority for weather satellites to the National Reconnaissance Office.

WASHINGTON – The National Reconnaissance Office is set to take over some weather missions from the Air Force after the House of Representatives voted Thursday to give the agency “the acquisition programs necessary to meet the national security requirements for cloud characterization and theater weather imagery.”

The move had been expected since April, when, in a draft for the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee said they wanted the Air Force to start handing over responsibility for the weather missions.

“The committee has been concerned with the Air Force’s lack of planning, coordination, and execution of activities to meet the top two Joint Requirements Oversight Council certified requirements for space-based environmental monitoring,” a report accompanying the April draft said.

The move of the weather missions is part of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which passed the House on a 390-30 vote. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it is not expected to face much opposition.

The NRO – which usually handles spy satellites – would be responsible for purchasing military weather surveillance satellites, and the bill says Congress will divert funds for the project to the agency from the Air Force between fiscal years 2018 and 2022.

Congressional leaders have indicated their concern with the Air Force’s handling of weather satellite programs, and in the 2016 NDAA, authorized only $56 million for the service to work on a weather satellite follow-on, about $20 million less than what the service had requested.

In an April 15 interview with SpaceNews, Col. Mike Guetlein, the head of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s remote sensing directorate, said that weather was an area the service was evaluating to see if requirements could be met by commercially available data sources.

The NRO originally helped create the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program back in the 1960s, but later handed it off to the Air Force.

SpaceNews has reached out to the Air Force, NRO, and Congress, and will update this story as more information becomes available.