New concerns about U.S. Central Command’s access to weather satellite data

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The issue of ensuring weather data support for U.S. Central Command has drawn the attention of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Updated May 2 with new information from Eumetsat

WASHINGTON — U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia receive weather data courtesy of the European Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization that provides coverage over the Indian Ocean.

This is a mission that Eumetsat had planned to end by now but has been extended to fill the gap for Central Command until the United States comes up with a more permanent solution. When an older Meteosat satellite began to run out of service life in 2016, Eumetsat relocated its Meteosat 8 as part of an international Indian Ocean Coverage effort requested by the World Meteorological Organization, Eumetsat Director General Alain Ratier said in a statement to SpaceNews. “It was not upon request of the U.S. Department of Defense,” he added. “Eumetsat received no such request.”

The Air Force, meanwhile, is considering using an existing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite as a temporary gap filler.

The issue of ensuring weather data support for U.S. Central Command has drawn the attention of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. The subcommittee is concerned about CENTCOM relying on foreign support for weather data, and does not appear convinced that an aging NOAA satellite is the solution either.

In its section of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, the subcommittee asks the secretary of the Air Force to “develop a plan to provide the United States Central Command with persistent weather imagery for the area of operations of the command beginning not later than January 1, 2026.”

More specifically, lawmakers want to see a plan by March 1, 2019, that “does not rely on data provided by a foreign government and does not include relocating legacy geostationary operational environmental satellites.” They also want a cost estimate of the proposed plan.

Ajay Mehta, acting deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said negotiations with the Air Force continue. “Under a framework agreement on cooperation for space-based environmental monitoring, NOAA is working with the U.S. Air Force to evaluate whether a residual GOES satellite can support its requirements for Indian Ocean coverage,” he said  in a statement to SpaceNews.

Former NOAA administrator and retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher said the concern expressed by lawmakers is understandable. “Using an older satellite to cover the CENTCOM area of responsibility comes with the risk that aging instruments beyond their advertised life spans may fail,” he told SpaceNews. “A more permanent solution is clearly preferable. Any instruments that exceed those lifetimes are risky.”

Lautenbacher has been in discussions with the Air Force about providing a “commercial option” to fill the gap. He is the CEO of GeoOptics, a Silicon Valley company that is developing a constellation of small satellites to collect data about Earth’s climate and environment from low Earth orbit.

Ralph Stoffler, the Air Force director of weather, said providing coverage for CENTCOM has been a top priority. “The challenge in our business is that 95 percent of the data we use come from the international community,” he said in an interview in January. “We try to create a balance between what we get from international partners and commercial partners.”

Stoffler oversees the $320 million per year Air Force weather program, with a workforce of 4,300 personnel who support both the Air Force and the Army around the world. Accurate weather data is essential to any military operation. Battlefield commanders require long-term forecasts ranging from 16 days for the Air Force to 45 days for the Army.

CENTCOM since the mid 1990s has relied on European research satellites. “Europe decided a while back it didn’t need those satellites because Russia and China are populating that part of the world,” Stoffler said. Europe has agreed to continue to provide coverage which buys the Air Force time to produce alternatives. “NOAA has been helpful,” he said. “GOES on orbit are as good or better as the European satellites.”

Ratier said Metosat 5, 6 and 7 provided 20 years of uninterrupted observations over the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean Coverage international effort involves Eumetsat, Russia, China and India, he said. ” Meteosat 8 was relocated to 41.5 degrees East to optimize coverage from zero to 82 degrees East through the combination of two Meteosat and two Insat 3D satellites with sufficient overlap for cross calibration.”

Under an agreement between Eumetsat and NOAA, U.S. users have access in real time to imagery from all Meteosat satellites.

The Air Force requested $63.7 million in its FY-19 budget for a “weather space vehicle relay ground station to execute plan to utilize residual GOES capability to address space-based environmental monitoring weather gap 1 (cloud characterization) and gap 2 (theater weather imagery) requirements over the Indian Ocean region.”

Commercial services also might be considered, Stoffler said. “We will see what the market bears.”

Lautenbacher said small and nano satellite developments are in their infancy, “but will rapidly grow in product diversity and capacity as customers indicate their requirements and interest in purchasing.”

Acquiring data from a commercial company versus building government-owned satellites are widely different business models, and finding a middle ground has been difficult for the Defense Department as the new space industry continues to increase the types of satellite-based services offered to the government.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in November published a “sources sought” solicitation for the Weather System Follow-On program. The purpose was to begin “market research to identify capable industry sources with full system solutions to meet anticipated Department of Defense space-based environmental monitoring requirements for cloud characterization and theater weather imagery.”

A spokesman said SMC wants to look at “all available industry solutions” with a goal of an “initial launch capability” in fiscal year 2024.