WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers authorized $40 million next year for a legacy Air Force weather satellite program but restricted access to the funding until senior Defense Department officials can demonstrate that launching the final satellite in the series is the best and most affordable option.
In approving less than half of the Air Force’s $89 million request for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), and then fencing off the money, Congress clearly displayed its continued skepticism with the service’s weather satellite strategy.
The DMSP provisions were contained in the conference version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 that was hashed out by House and Senate negotiators and announced Sept. 29. The House and Senate have approved the measure, but a White House veto threat looms.
The bill stipulates that before the Air Force can access the DMSP funding, the Defense Department must conduct a program review and deliver a report to Congress that shows how the final satellite in the long-running series, DMSP-20, meets current forecasting requirements and that launching it is the most affordable option. The Pentagon also would be required to determine whether satellites operated by U.S. allies could meet the requirement.
The White House said in June that without the satellite, built in the 1990s and held in costly storage ever since, the Air Force faces reduced accuracy of weather prediction models and degraded efficiency of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. DMSP satellites have long been used to determine optimal imaging times for U.S. photoreconnaissance satellites.
Previous versions of the 2016 NDAA drafted separately in the House and Senate authorized no finding for the DMSP program. While the conference bill conditionally provides $40 million, both the House and Senate versions of the 2016 defense appropriations bill recommended no funding next year to launch DMSP-20.
Further complicating matters, the Pentagon along with the rest of the federal government is operating under a continuing resolution, which funds programs at 2015 appropriated levels, that expires Dec. 11, 2015.
An Air Force report completed in September 2014 recommended against launching DMSP-20, but the service has since said the satellite is necessary in light of delays in fielding a next-generation system, which has struggled to win congressional support. The latest bill authorizes $56 million of the Air Force’s $76 million request for what is now being called the Weather Satellite Follow-on and asked the service how the program would meet requirements for cloud characterization, which is used in flying operations, and weather imagery.
Continued indecision on DMSP-20, meanwhile, could prove costly: A report released earlier this year by the Senate Armed Services Committee said that by 2018, the cost of storing and launching the satellite could be as high as $455 million.
Other notable space-related provisions in the NDAA for 2016 include:
- $26 million for the second “pathfinder” project in a Defense Department program set up to examine new ways to procure satellite communications services from the private sector. The Air Force has no funding, either in 2015 or proposed for next year, allocated to the second pathfinder, in which the service would commit to a long-term prelaunch lease of an entire transponder aboard a commercial satellite. The money is expected to cover the cost of two transponders.
- $20 million for the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. The service’s 2016 budget request included $6.5 million for the office, which was created to develop and deploy space capabilities to plug gaps or address emerging military needs. In previous budget requests, the Air Force sought to shutter the office, only to be rebuffed by Congress. Service officials are now considering having the office take the lead in developing next-generation replacements for satellites currently used for space surveillance and weather monitoring.