U.S. Air Force Has Options for Weather Satellite Data

The U.S. Air Force has identified at least two looming gaps in weather satellite data that could be addressed by the types of unconventional solutions that the service should be ready and equipped to adopt.

One is for constant weather coverage of U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility — Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia — currently provided by the European weather satellite organization’s geostationary-orbiting Meteosat-7 satellite, which is slated for retirement in 2016. The other is for global ocean vector winds data from the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) 12-year-old WindSat satellite, which could fail at any time.

Because of the timing, and the fact that budgets are tight, the Air Force should be looking outside the traditional hardware procurement route if it wants to avoid or at least minimize the gaps. Thankfully, the service has a number of alternatives at its disposal.

Two interesting options immediately come to mind for replacing weather imagery from Meteosat-7, which launched in 1997 and was moved to the 57.5 degrees east longitude orbital slot over the Indian Ocean in 2006 after fulfilling its primary mission covering Europe.

Europe has no plans to replace the satellite, but Russia, China and India have or are expected to have weather coverage of the area from geostationary orbit in 2017. The Pentagon has categorically ruled out reliance on Russia and China, which leaves India as a potential data source.

For the past decade, the United States and India have been slowly expanding ties in civil space. Most recently, the two agreed to examine cooperation in areas including Mars exploration and Earth observation.

However, India’s restrictive data-sharing policies have long been a stumbling block to closer collaboration in weather satellites and military space cooperation has been off the agenda.

Frank Rose State Department
Frank A. Rose, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance. Credit: American Security Project

But there are indications of an opening, at least on the latter front. Frank A. Rose, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, touted the potential of Indo-U.S. cooperation in national security space during a recent speech in New Delhi. Although Mr. Rose did not mention weather data sharing — his public remarks focused instead on space situational awareness, collision avoidance and maritime surveillance — the idea certainly is worth exploring as a near-term solution to the problem.

Another possibility, perhaps for the longer term, is a commercial arrangement that could take one of two forms. The first is a hosted payload arrangement utilizing the Air Force contracting vehicle set up for these types of missions — and which the service has yet to utilize. The second is a commercial data-purchase agreement. One company, Tempus Global, is looking to commercialize a hyperspectral weather sensor developed for a since-canceled U.S. government program that was intended, perhaps coincidentally, to cover the Indian Ocean region.

The job of replacing WindSat, meanwhile, seems particularly suited to the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, which recently got a new lease on life. Not only is the Air Force requesting fresh funding next year for the office — after three straight years of trying to close it down — it is contemplating expanding its mission, with weather being one possible application.

The Air Force has hinted that it might contract with the NRL to build a copy of the original WindSat instrument, presumably from leftover components. But this option should be pursued only as a last resort, and only if it is clearly the quickest and lowest-cost way to replace WindSat. The sensor technology in question is already more than a decade old, and the NRL — like other government laboratories — should be developing cutting-edge technologies, as opposed to stamping out copies of hardware that industry could build.

As it copes with tight budgets, an evolving threat environment and increasing demand for space-based services, the Air Force has given — at least in public — every indication that it is willing to try new things in space. Whether or not the service is serious will be evident in the paths it chooses to replace the WindSat and Meteosat-7 data streams.