Pentagon Says It Will Not Rely on Russian or Chinese Weather Satellites

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are still developing a plan to obtain weather satellite coverage of the Middle East and Afghanistan but will not rely on Chinese or Russian satellites, a Pentagon official said.

U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for that broad region, has been relying on Europe’s geostationary-orbiting Meteosat-7 satellite for constant weather coverage. But in 2014, Europe’s civilian meteorological satellite organization, known as Eumetsat, said it would not replace Meteosat-7, which launched in 2006 and is expected to reach its end of life in 2017.

Meteosat-7 provides cloud characterization, used in flying operations, and weather imagery. Both are among the most pressing data requirements identified in a recent Air Force weather study.

Air Force officials said in a presentation to lawmakers late last year that once the European satellite, stationed at 57 degrees east longitude over the Indian Ocean, ceases operations, the service may have to rely on non-allied international partners for similar data or face “diminished battlespace awareness.” The only other geostationary weather satellites expected to be in service over that area after 2017 are operated by China, India and Russia, according to Air Force slides obtained by SpaceNews.

Doug Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy
“Let me make one thing very clear … the DoD has no intent, no plans and no current reliance on Chinese or Russian weather satellites,” Doug Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy said. “We do not have it today. We will not have it in the future. That is not where we are heading.” Credit: U.S. Department of Defense/Monica A. King

Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee March 26, that the Pentagon would not get that data from China or Russia.

“Let me make one thing very clear … the DoD has no intent, no plans and no current reliance on Chinese or Russian weather satellites,” Loverro said. “We do not have it today. We will not have it in the future. That is not where we are heading.”

But he added that, “I cannot tell you today how we will address this gap. We know it’s an issue.”

John Leslie, a spokesman for NOAA, which obtains Meteosat-7 data from Eutelsat and passes it along to the Pentagon, did not respond by press time to a request for comment. Neither did a spokesman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

During the March 26 hearing, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), reading from a Feb. 13 Air Force memo, said “new information has come to light that demonstrates an unacceptably high risk for relying on civil and international sources.

“While China and Russia have mature technical systems, recent events indicate they possess unacceptable security and operational risks. This dependency, particularly over the U.S. [Central Command] area of responsibility, provides unnecessary risk to U.S. operations and American lives.”

Loverro laid out several possible solutions including: additional investments by the Defense Department or NOAA to fill the gap with a U.S. sensor, or for Eumetsat to move Meteosat-8, which launched in 2002, to the Central Command region.

It was not immediately clear whether using India’s Insat-series satellites is a possibility. Loverro told the subcommittee he traveled to India recently to discuss the country’s burgeoning space program.

In an April 2 email to SpaceNews, Lamborn said he is considering offering an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that would “make it very clear that we must develop an alternative weather solution to cover this gap, both in the short and long-term.”

The Air Force already is facing demands on its weather satellite program from several fronts. The service is planning a gapfiller satellite that would launch as early as 2018 to provide ocean surface vector wind data, for example.

The Air Force also is in the planning stages for its next-generation weather satellite system, which likely would launch in 2021. The service is expected to make a decision soon on whether to launch the final satellite in its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which has been in storage for more than a decade.