Editorial | Tough Love: Bill Seeks Needed Clarity on Pentagon’s Weather Sat Strategy

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The U.S. House Armed Services Committee has fired a shot across the Pentagon’s bow concerning the latter’s plan for providing and maintaining satellite-based weather coverage to support military operations.

In marking up its version of the defense authorization bill for 2016, the committee recommended withholding funding for the U.S. Air Force’s proposed Defense Weather Follow-on system pending a high-level briefing to lawmakers on the Defense Department’s future coverage strategy. The bill further requires the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to certify that the strategy meets the military’s needs for “cloud characterization and theater weather imagery.”

Although the bill and accompanying report did not cite anything specific, lawmakers are concerned about the Pentagon’s plan — or perhaps the lack thereof — to replace coverage of the Middle East and surrounding regions currently provided by Europe’s Meteosat-7 satellite. The geostationary-orbiting satellite, which was moved to the 57.7 degrees east longitude orbital slot over the Indian Ocean after fulfilling its primary mission covering Europe, is slated for retirement in 2017 and Europe has no plans to replace it.

The Defense Department’s own contingency plan appears to have been drawn up hastily.

Testifying before Congress in March, Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, could only say that whatever solution emerges will not rely on Russian or Chinese satellites. The House bill, drafted nearly a month later, nonetheless specifically bans such reliance.

Then, on April 29, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told senators that the service had decided to launch the last of the legacy Defense Meteorological Support Program satellites to partially address the looming Indian Ocean coverage gap. Notably, an Air Force study completed in September recommended against launching that satellite, which was built in the 1990s.

DMSP spacecraft
Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP) spacecraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force

It is not clear how effective the polar-orbiting DMSP-F20 can be as a Meteosat-7 replacement given that the latter operates in a geostationary orbit that provides persistent coverage of the Indian Ocean region. DMSP-F20 would provide only periodic coverage, augmenting other polar-orbiting satellites including its immediate predecessor, launched last year.

In a puzzling twist, Ms. James also testified that Europe had led the Air Force to believe, until just recently, that it was planning to replace Meteosat-7 at 57.5 degrees east. This, apparently, was news to Alain Ratier, director general of the European weather satellite agency, who said the organization has made clear for the past three years that it did not have a spare satellite to carry on Meteosat-7’s current mission.

The conflicting assertions can only fuel congressional perceptions that the Air Force hasn’t given its weather satellite strategy the full attention it deserves. A lack of urgency was evident well before Meteosat-7’s impending retirement surfaced as an issue — the White House canceled the civil-military program that was supposed to replace DMSP in 2010, and the ensuing period has been marked more by studies and false starts than anything else.

In fairness, the military mission served by Meteosat-7 is relatively new; the Air Force traditionally has not operated geostationary weather satellites. The recently approved Defense Weather Follow-on program, in contrast, is designed to fulfill a longstanding requirement for periodic global coverage and take measurements that cannot be obtained from other available sensors.

But if the House authorization language — assuming it becomes law — brings more focus, clarity and cohesiveness to the Pentagon’s weather satellite strategy, it will have served a very useful purpose.