Proposed Bill Language Puts Brakes on Weather Satellite Program, Clarifies RD-180 Ban

by

WASHINGTON — Citing a looming gap in geostationary weather satellite coverage of a strategically important area of the world, a House military space oversight panel has recommended the U.S. Air Force go “back to the drawing board” on its next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program.

In a preliminary markup of its portion of the defense authorization bill for 2016, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee recommended withholding the full funding requested next year for the Air Force’s Weather Satellite Follow-on program until the secretary of defense briefs members on plans to provide continuing weather coverage the Middle East and Afghanistan. Currently that coverage is provided by a European geostationary-orbiting weather satellite slated for decommissioning next year.

The markup also would soften language in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 that bars future use of Russian engines on launches of U.S. national security payloads.

Some details of the preliminary markup were publicly released by the subcommittee April 22. The formal markup of the space and strategic forces-related portion of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 is scheduled for April 23.

The new measure “sends the Air Force back to the drawing board on the next-generation weather satellite system by withholding all funding for the program until it is redesigned to guarantee warfighter requirements are met,” the subcommittee’s April 22 press release said.

The polar-orbiting Weather Satellite Follow-on program is the designated replacement for the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, whose last satellite is in storage awaiting an Air Force decision on whether it should be launched. Congress provided $76 million for the program in 2015, and the Air Force is requesting another $76 million this year.

The subcommittee’s stated concerns with the Weather Satellite Follow-on program stem from an emerging requirement to provide constant weather coverage of Afghanistan and the Middle East, a requirement that a polar-orbiting system does not address.

U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the region, has been relying on Europe’s geostationary-orbiting Meteosat-7 satellite for that coverage. But in 2014, Europe’s civilian meteorological satellite organization, Eumetsat, said it would not replace Meteosat-7, which launched in 1997 and is expected to reach its end of life in 2016.

Pentagon officials have not said how they plan to address the issue, other than to reassure concerned lawmakers that they will not rely on Russian or Chinese satellites operating over the region.

Doug Lamborn
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). Credit: Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation video grab

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the subcommittee’s vice chairman, raised questions about the coverage in several hearings this year.

The subcommittee’s markup also includes a clarification that should more precisely spell out how many Russian-made rocket engines United Launch Alliance can use in upcoming competitions to launch military payloads. The Russian-built RD-180 powers the main stage of ULA’s workhorse rocket, the Atlas 5.

In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year, Congress mandated that the Air Force stop using the RD-180 and begin work on a U.S.-built replacement.

But earlier this year, the Defense Department and Denver-based ULA complained to Congress that the law is too restrictive and would hamstring the company in upcoming launch competitions against emerging rival SpaceX. Under the most conservative reading of the law, ULA would have only five RD-180 engines available for the competitions, which are slated to begin later this year and could cover nine launches over the next three years.

By the time the law went into effect, ULA had ordered a large number of RD-180 engines to fulfill existing launch contracts and compete for new ones, but Defense Department lawyers were concerned that the engines that had yet to be paid for in full as of Feb. 1, 2014, would be swept up in the ban. The proposed new language specifies that the engines in question only had to be under firm contract as of that date to avoid the ban, a clarification that could make more RD-180s available for the competition.