Report Adds to Confusion Over U.S. Air Force Weather Plans
WASHINGTON — A proposed U.S. Air Force weather satellite that service leaders said in March could launch as early as 2018 to help plug the gap between the current system and a new-generation capability is now scheduled to launch in 2021, the service said in a report to Congress.
The latest projected launch date raises new questions about the Air Force’s future weather satellite strategy, which has been in flux since the cancellation of a civil-military program in 2010.
Air Force leaders have discussed using the Weather Satellite Gapfiller, or WSGF, as a bridge between the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and the Weather Satellite Follow-on, which has had difficulty gaining traction on Capitol Hill.
As recently as this past March, Dave Madden, then-executive director of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which buys military space hardware, said the gap filler mission would launch “very quickly” and feature a government-furnished ocean-wind vector sensor aboard a commercially available satellite platform, or bus.
Since then the Air Force has formally turned the program over to its Operationally Responsive Space Office, whose purpose is to procure and field military space capabilities quickly in response to emerging needs.
But in a September report to Congress on ORS projects, the Air Force said the gap filler is now scheduled to launch in 2021 and that the program is “in the early stages of acquisition development.”
The report, titled “ORS Update to Congress,” offered few additional details about the program except to say it would be compatible with the Multi-Mission Satellite Operations Center (MMSOC), a satellite control architecture designed primarily for experimental missions.
U.S. lawmakers have long complained that the Air Force has not clearly communicated a plan for replacing the venerable DMSP system, whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. The last satellite in that series, DMSP-20, was built in the 1990s but whether it gets launched is an open issue between a skeptical Congress on one hand and the Air Force and White House on the other.
In budget documents released in February, the Air Force said the Weather Satellite Follow-on, yet to be defined beyond an initial satellite, would launch around 2021. But given the 2021 launch date assigned to the gap filler in the report, it would appear the Air Force now has a later schedule in mind for the operational mission.
The public affairs office at the Space and Missile Systems Center did not respond by press time to questions seeking clarification of the service’s future weather satellites.
The gapfiller is intended to provide ocean-wind data that currently comes from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Windsat satellite, which launched in 2003 and is expected to fail before the end of this year. The Air Force wants to launch a replacement “as soon as possible,” according to slides the service presented at a March 10 industry day.
Windsat’s main microwave polarmetric radiometer sensor was built in house by the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
Ocean wind speed and direction data also are one of three data products expected from the Weather Satellite Follow-on, the others being tropical cyclone intensity and charged particles in low Earth orbit with the potential to affect satellites.
The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016, finalized by Congress in late September, authorized $56 million for the Weather Satellite Follow-on, versus the Air Force’s request of $76 million. The measure fenced off $28 million of the authorized funding pending proof from the Pentagon that the satellite meets the military’s cloud characterization and in-theater forecasting requirements.
U.S. President Barack Obama vetoed that legislation over unrelated provisions Oct. 22. The House has scheduled a vote to try and override that veto for Nov. 5.