Op-ed | DoD weather capabilities have lagged; Space Force can turn that around

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U.S. service members  are at risk of losing the most up-to-date knowledge of weather conditions.

Just before dawn on August 30, 1776, a bank of fog crawled over New York’s East River, concealing George Washington’s beleaguered Continentals as they slipped away to safety and out of reach of the surrounding British forces. Washington had pulled off the miraculous evacuation of more than 9,000 soldiers from Brooklyn without a single casualty thanks to a fortunate turn of the weather. 

Access to weather information is an enduring component of successful military operational planning, and  similar episodes are well known in the annals of American military history, from the Battle of Long Island to D-Day to the infamous dust storms in the first Iraq War.  

For much of that history, America’s warfighters had to do without the highly advanced technological tools that forecast weather systems. These tools are now readily available, but today U.S. service members  are at risk of losing the most up-to-date knowledge of weather conditions.

A gap in weather capabilities has been widening. The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) is at the end of its service life and follow-on programs have ranked low in the Air Force’s priority list. All of this could  —  and should — change with the Biden administration’s revitalized emphasis on climate change as an “essential element of our national security.” 

Since the early 1960s, DMSP has provided assured global weather to support Defense Department operations and pioneered some of the most advanced weather predicting capabilities in the world alongside a broad industrial base. 

In 2015, Congress terminated the DMSP program and chose not to fund the launch of its  last satellite because lawmakers had “lost confidence in the Air Force’s management of DMSP and its articulation of requirements.”  Decisions made over the years by DoD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA have led to the very real possibility of significant gaps in cloud characterization and theater weather imagery, specifically over portions of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  

To address these gaps, the Air Force funded Operationally Responsive Space 8, or ORS-8, a free flier satellite partnership with NASA that was cancelled following industry protests in 2019. The Space Force has inherited the challenges of this broken architecture and has developed a multi-pronged strategy to address the gaps and advance the technology, including reactivating a previously decommissioned NOAA satellite to temporarily fill the most pressing defense weather gaps.  

While such issues may not be dinner table conversation for a vast majority of Americans, they nevertheless carry huge consequences for their safety. Absent a replacement for the DMSP, America’s warfighters will be as in the dark about weather as Washington’s Continentals that day in 1776. 

The Space Force is trying to leverage nontraditional acquisition authorities and industry innovations in smaller satellite buses for DoD missions. The Space and Missile Systems Center recently awarded three Other Transaction Authority agreements, totaling $309 million to develop prototypes for the Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Weather System (EWS) program.

This is a smart approach that should help allay concerns over the troubled defense weather program.  

Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements seem ideally suited to procure a weather system follow-on.  Prototype OTAs have strict eligibility requirements about small business and non-traditional defense contractor participation, as well as investment from parties other than the federal government. 

These preconditions strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base, promote competition and should result in lower costs as companies are encouraged to invest their internal research and development dollars.  OTAs are structured to inject innovation into a traditionally cumbersome defense acquisition process. This allows generational improvements in capabilities, quick iteration between the companies and the government, and ultimately tailored prototypes that meet the bespoke requirements of the government customer faster than traditional procurements.

The companies selected for the EWS program said they are leveraging their technology and expertise from existing sensors, satellite systems and payloads to bring increases in capabilities at shorter timelines and lower costs. This is exactly what OTAs should aim to do. 

Despite the advantages offered by OTAs, there are challenges with this approach.  While leveraging existing technology may be perceived as attractive cost savings measures for companies, it may come at the expense of providing generational increases in the capabilities necessary to meet the specified requirement of cloud characterization. The Space Force will have to consider these trades as they continue to plan for the future follow-on for DMSP.  

Congress has watched these efforts and has made its opinion known. It values requirements fulfillment, at a reasonable price point, that will foster innovation and increases in capability. The current path for EWS satisfies all of these criteria.  

The defense weather community has experienced a great deal of well deserved scrutiny in recent years. It has been plagued by programmatic and operational failures that have been called out by Congress. 

DoD and Space Force buyers now have a unique opportunity to turn the tide. They can demonstrate the utility of congressionally authorized acquisition approaches to fulfill warfighter requirements at lower cost while leveraging private sector innovation. And they can help accomplish the broader policy goals regarding climate change laid out in the Biden Administration’s national security strategy. 

Going back to that day in August 1776, General Washington’s chief of intelligence, Benjamin Tallmadge, called the army’s escape a “providential occurrence.” Providence may well play a role in U.S. military operations, but we need not rely on it for weather prediction. That we can leave to the payloads. 

Sarah Mineiro is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the former staff director of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.