Editorial: U.S. Air Force Needs To Get Behind the Weather Mission

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Congress has driven a final stake through the U.S. Air Force’s latest weather satellite development initiative, a decision that underscores the need for the service to figure out once and for all exactly how it intends to fulfill a critical and longstanding military requirement.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 officially terminates the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS), as does the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012. Both measures — the latter bill funds several U.S. federal agencies including the Pentagon — were signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama in December.

The DWSS was the U.S. Defense Department program that grew from the ashes of the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which the White House terminated in 2010 due to delays and massive cost overruns attributed in part to a dysfunctional interagency management structure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was tasked to pursue its own system with NASA’s help, and the good news is that program appears now to be on a stable financial footing.

Congress always had doubts about the DWSS, which was to have been built by Northrop Grumman, prime contractor on the canceled civil-military system. Lawmakers first raised questions about large budget requests for a program that had yet to be defined, particularly given the fact that the Air Force has a pair of legacy weather satellites in the shed that, if launched successfully, could provide coverage until close to the end of the decade.

As deliberations on the Pentagon’s 2012 budget request wore on last year, it became increasingly clear that Congress wanted the Air Force to rethink its plan. For its part, the service — which could be fairly described as a reluctant partner in the civil-military program — seemed lukewarm in its support for DWSS. Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton was decidedly vague when asked about the service’s commitment to DWSS during a public appearance in October: “We are looking at the messages Congress is sending us and also looking at the legitimate requirement, not only on the [Defense Department] side but obviously we have partners at NOAA and NASA who also rely on this weather data. So I think you will see a continued commitment to the weather mission but how we go about it given the concerns around this program — we’re still working our way through that.”

In the final defense spending bill for 2012, congressional appropriators provided $43 million for DWSS termination costs and $125 million for a “weather satellite follow on,” details of which are unspecified. With all uncertainty regarding DWSS’s future now removed, the question is whether the cash-strapped Air Force is truly ready to get serious about a successor to the venerable Defense Meteorological Satellite System, which dates back to the mid-1960s and whose last two satellites will be more than 15 years old by the time they are finally launched.

The Defense Department today relies on civilian environmental satellites for certain data products, and NOAA stands ready to support the military with its own polar-orbiting satellites, the latest generation of which carry many of the key instruments designed for the civil-military system. But civil and military weather satellite requirements are not a perfect match, and NOAA is facing its own coverage gaps thanks to past funding instability for its program. Moreover, weather forecasting is sufficiently critical to both the civilian and military user communities to merit a degree of redundancy.

President Obama and his senior Pentagon leadership on Jan. 5 indicated that they intend to continue investing in space capabilities even as they scale back the military’s force structure in response to the immense fiscal pressures they now face. This is appropriate given the force multiplier effect that advanced space capabilities, including weather forecasting, provide. Also encouraging is the fact that Congress seems to recognize that the nation needs some sort of dedicated military weather satellite system.

But the Pentagon, indeed the nation, can ill afford more wasteful starts and stops and starts on this mission, nor is it advisable to wait for the appearance of a looming coverage gap — or a more immediate one, should one or more of the legacy satellites suffer a technical failure — to settle on a program. The time has come for the Air Force, in concert with the other services, to decide what it must have at a price it can afford, and execute accordingly.