Meteosat-7 imagery
Meteosat-7 imagery of a storm hitting northern Bangladesh in April 2014. Credit: Eumetsat

WASHINGTON — The Air Force failed to effectively coordinate with NOAA how to collect the weather satellite data that is crucial to U.S. Central Command and used for long-range strike operations and battlespace awareness, the Government Accountability Office said March 10.

As a result, the Air Force “did not fully evaluate potential solutions” and now faces a looming gap for that information, the report said.

In 2014, an Air Force study, known as an analysis of alternatives, examined potential gaps in space-based weather data. That study ranked cloud characterization, used for long-range strike operations, and theater weather imagery, used in forecasting and battlespace awareness, as the Pentagon’s top priorities.

The Air Force had planned to obtain that data from the European weather satellite agency, Eumetsat, and its Meteosat 7 satellite over the Indian Ocean. But that satellite is expected to reach its end of life in 2017 and the agency maintains that for years it said it did not plan to put another satellite in its place.

Even though public reports at the time raised questions about the availability of the data, the GAO said, the Air Force believed the Europeans would replace Meteosat with a comparable satellite. In the 2014 analysis of alternatives, the Air Force said the risk of not receiving the information was “low”

The Pentagon made “an incorrect assumption about the continued availability of critical data from European partner satellites,” the GAO said. As a result, the GAO said the Air Force did not “fully assess space- based solutions for the two highest-priority capabilities because it assumed that support from civil and international partners would suffice.”

“It is clear DOD missed an opportunity to more fully assess options for cloud characterization and theater weather imagery,” the GAO report said.

But when the confusion over the data bubbled up during congressional hearings last spring, lawmakers put a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 asking the GAO to provide greater clarification on a series of weather satellite issues.

Since then, the Air Force has studied how to obtain the weather data from European or Indian partners or by relying on its legacy weather satellites from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, the GAO said.

That plan also had a hiccup. On Feb. 11, NOAA satellite operators lost the ability to command the youngest DMSP satellite, Flight 19, and Air Force officials said it is not clear if the satellite will be recovered.

The next oldest DMSP satellite, DMSP 18, launched in October 2009 and is operating beyond its design life of about five years.

Last year, the Air Force asked Congress to launch the final DMSP satellite, known as DMSP Flight 20. But Congress terminated the DMSP program in December after lawmakers complained the Air Force’s weather satellite program has been mismanaged.

“The termination cannot be reversed because of payload contamination once maintenance activities for DMSP-20 are shut down,” the GAO said.

It is unclear whether the Air Force has stopped maintenance activities for DMSP-20.

Another option for the information may be Eumetsat’s Meteosat-8, the report said. Eumetsat is expected to decide in June if the satellite is no longer needed in its current location and could be moved to partially include the Indian Ocean, where the Pentagon is looking for coverage.

In addition, the Air Force is working on its Weather Satellite Follow-on program, which would consist of a single polar-orbiting satellite that would be replaced every five to seven years. But the program does not address either the cloud characterization or theater weather imagery gap.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.