U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. Credit: Tom Kimmell

WASHINGTON — Faced with a perfect storm of looming coverage gaps and congressional skepticism of its long-term weather satellite strategy, the U.S. Air Force says it has decided to launch a long-stored legacy satellite despite an internal recommendation against doing so.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told members of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 29 that the service will proceed with the launch of the final Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite to partially address a looming coverage gap over the Middle East and surrounding regions.

Air Force officials  also said the service plans to tap its Operationally Responsive Space Office to build a small satellite that would launch in 2018 to replace ocean wind data now provided by the aging Windsat satellite. The ORS Office is responsible for building and deploying space capabilities quickly in response to emerging military needs.

Both moves were described by industry officials as small, short-term steps designed to buy time as the service takes another crack at coming up with a long-term comprehensive strategy for meeting the Defense Department’s future needs for weather satellite data.

Congress clearly is unhappy with the current strategy, the centerpiece of which is called the Weather Satellite Follow-on system, a single, polar-orbiting satellite that would gather data that cannot be obtained from other available systems. That satellite is notionally scheduled for launch in 2021.

“I am concerned that the Department of Defense’s weather satellite follow-on plan relies too heavily on foreign nations — not all friendly — to meet top warfighting requirements,” Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said an April 29 email. “Additionally, smaller, less expensive, and rapidly deployable weather satellites soon to be available by the private sector will proliferate our space-based weather architecture, complicate targeting, and dissuade [anti-satellite] investments by our competitors and enemies.”

In marking up its portion of the defense authorization bill for 2016, the House subcommittee recommended denying the Air Force’s $76 million request for the Weather Satellite Follow-on program next year until it received assurances from the Pentagon about the program. In addition, members said the service should “go back to the drawing board” to devise a plan that meets all of its requirements.

Prominent among these is constant coverage of the Middle East and surrounding regions — U.S. Central Command’s area of operations — currently provided by a European weather satellite slated for retirement as early as 2016. Europe’s Eumetsat weather satellite organization says it has no plans to replace the geostationary-orbiting Meteosat-7 satellite, which operates over the Indian Ocean, and the Air Force is scrambling to find an alternative.

Enter DMSP Flight 20, the last in a series of polar-orbiting military weather satellites whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. It was built in the 1990s and had notionally been scheduled to launch in 2020.

Congress has prodded the Air Force about its plans for DMSP-F20, whose storage costs over the next five years were expected to top $400 million. Lawmakers also viewed the satellite as a candidate for a competitively awarded launch contract, something the Air Force has not had in almost a decade.

A long-awaited analysis of alternatives completed in September recommended against launching the satellite, but the service ultimately was swayed in the other direction by Central Command’s requirement for cloud imagery and other data of the Indian Ocean region after Meteosat-7 ceases operations.

Air Force officials had originally told lawmakers they were considering using Chinese or Russian satellites for that data, but later backed away from that plan.

While the DMSP F-20 would provide some coverage of the Indian Ocean region, it would not provide the persistent data that comes from geostationary satellites like Meteosat-7.  James said the DMSP satellite “is part of the solution” for the required coverage.

“We’re not exactly sure the best means to meet that requirement,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said during the hearing. Launching the DMSP-F20 would give the Air Force more time to develop plans for comprehensive weather coverage, he said.

James added that the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes and distributes imagery and other mapping information for the military and intelligence community, was eager to see DMSP-F20 launched.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is turning to its ORS Office to plug a looming gap in ocean wind data as early as 2018. The Air Force said in February it was considering assigning the office a weather-related mission but was not specific.

Currently the military gets the ocean wind data from the Windsat satellite, which was built by the Naval Research Laboratory, launched in 2003 and is expected to cease operating as soon as this year. The Air Force had been considering a replacement satellite using a copy of the original Windsat instrument, prompting complaints from industry that more cost-effective solutions were available.

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.