Commentary | China’s Threat to America’s Weather Systems


China’s cyberwarriors have been busy, hacking not only into the U.S. Postal Service but also the National Weather Service.

This would surprise some. After all, the provision of weather information is a classic example of a “common good.” Corrupting the data, or damaging the satellites, would presumably redound to ill effect upon one’s own weather forecasting. This is one of the arguments that has been made for relying on China’s weather satellite constellation to provide weather data, while the American weather satellite constellation steadily decays and deteriorates.

This approach presumes that one’s own weather data are wholly tied into the global weather information network, rather than running independently. However, it is this very Chinese constellation that arguably allows the Chinese to interfere with others’ weather data — China doesn’t have to depend on the kindness of others.

It is also important to recognize the importance that the Chinese attribute to weather data, not simply in terms of farming and storm warnings but as a military asset. In this regard, analyses from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) make clear that provision of space-based weather information is an essential security task. Because future wars will be “informationized wars,” the ability to establish “information dominance” (zhi xinxi quan) will be a key struggle in future conflicts. That dominance, in turn, will rest in part upon the ability to establish “space dominance” (zhitian quan), because so much of modern information is collected, transmitted or exploited via space-based systems.

Establishing space dominance, according to PLA writings, entails the ability to exploit space-based assets while denying an opponent the ability to do the same. The exploitation of space is essential, in part, because of the importance of providing “information support” to friendly forces. This includes not only position, navigation and timing; communications; and reconnaissance functions, but also data regarding physical battlefield conditions. These include geodesy and meteorological information.

At the same time, the ability to secure space dominance rests upon the ability to deny an opponent access to space-based information. Preventing an opponent from obtaining “information support,” whether by directly neutralizing an opponent’s space infrastructure or disrupting its information networks, is integral to Chinese military thinking.

As careful students of history, both their own and others’, the Chinese are unlikely to have forgotten the vital role that weather played in the Allied successes of World War II, including D-Day. Throughout the war, the Allies and Axis waged a “weather war” in Greenland and even Newfoundland, as the Germans sought to establish weather stations that would help facilitate weather forecasts. Both sides understood that access to such weather data was essential in providing insight as to whether there would be opportunities for bombing raids and amphibious assaults. Indeed, the success of D-Day was due in part to the Allies’ winning that “weather war.” Because their weather stations on Greenland and in Canada had been systematically eliminated, the German high command did not realize that there would be a lull in the bad weather in early June 1944. The Allies, with their control of North America, did forecast that lull. As a result, much of the German leadership was away from their posts when the Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, crucially delaying the German response.

Today’s focus for weather information has shifted from weather ships and bases into space. But the information provided by weather satellites is, if anything, even more crucial. Superior weather information allowed the U.S. military to roll through sandstorms in the march to Baghdad, and allows operators to route unmanned aerial vehicles and air strikes around impending storms and other inclement weather. For a PLA that remains focused on crossing 180 kilometers of the Taiwan Straits, some of the most turbulent waters in the world, obtaining “information dominance” regarding meteorological conditions while denying it to potential opponents is a real, not theoretical, requirement.

Unfortunately, the U.S. array of weather satellites has suffered from a variety of cost-cutting and budgetary measures since the 1990s. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration civilian weather satellite program was merged with the Department of Defense’s, but the resulting entity did not result in a fleet of more efficient, more capable systems. Instead, bureaucratic gridlock and cost overruns eventually killed the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. Its successor, the Joint Polar Satellite System, is slated to deploy in 2017 — but in far smaller numbers.

The possibility of a gap in coverage, as well as the expense of orbiting additional satellites, has led some to suggest that perhaps the United States should depend upon China for the provision of weather data. Doing so, as Michael Krepon suggested in SpaceNews, would be beneficial: “The more they cooperate in space, the less likely it is that their competition on Earth will result in military confrontation.”

But Chinese interest in establishing space dominance and information dominance, and this recent hacking of U.S. meteorological information networks, would suggest that far from building confidence, such cooperation would erode our security. If China already hacks our information systems, what kinds of disruptions could be wrought if we had to incorporate Chinese data directly into our models, or had to rely on them for the provision of data and imagery in the first place?

Far from increasing our reliance on China, the United States should view this latest round of Chinese information warfare (which is unlikely to be the last) as yet another wake-up call about the need to strengthen the longevity and resilience of U.S. space-based weather systems. Belief in the “common good” is unlikely to shield American weather data and satellites from future attacks, when pitted against Chinese national interests.

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.