U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) questioned whether the Air Force can capably run space programs after trouble with its weather satellite program. Credit: House Armed Services Committee

WASHINGTON – A key U.S. House member blasted the Air Force’s top acquisition official Jan. 7 over the service’s handling of its weather satellite program, saying Congress would have been better off burning $500 million and questioning the Air Force’s ability to manage space programs.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on acquisition reform, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said Congress had lost confidence in the Air Force’s ability to run its legacy weather satellite program. Rogers chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which provides oversight of military satellites.

Rogers’s comments focused on the Air Force’s management of the final satellite in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a line of weather satellites that dated back to the 1960s.

“We could have saved the Air Force and the Congress a lot of aggravation if we put a half of a billion dollars in a parking lot and just burned it,” he said.

The Air Force built the last of those satellites, known as DMSP-F20, in the 1990s and planned to launch the satellite in 2020, even as it considered whether the cost — including years of storage — was worth it. Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor on the program.

In recent years, the Air Force has wavered about the need to launch the final satellite. But by the time the service came back to Congress in 2015 and asked to launch DMSP-20, “Congress had lost confidence in the Air Force’s ability to manage this program,” Rogers said.

In the massive omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016, lawmakers provided no funding for DMSP and the bill denied $120 million of funding to launch DMSP-20 around 2018. The combination effectively ended the program.

The Air Force had spent $518 million on the satellite, Rogers said.

“Why should we have any confidence the Air Force can manage space programs when we look at this example,” Rogers asked Richard Lombardi, the service’s acting acquisition chief, during the hearing.

Lombardi told Rogers that DMSP was “an unfortunate example” and that “the Air Force truly does understand the space business and how we operate in space.”

Rogers replied “You haven’t convinced us” and called DMSP was “inexcusable waste.”

Instead, he said, the money set aside for DMSP could have been spent on other national security priorities, but now the satellite is “going in the trash. I presume it’s going to be made into razor blades.”

Rogers was bothered by the DMSP program throughout the last budget cycle. In a speech on the House floor in June 2015, he said “it would be a shame to waste those dollars” already spent on DMSP, but acknowledged the Air Force has “not properly managed its space weather program.”

The Air Force is developing a long-term strategy for its weather satellites, including its weather satellite follow-on program.

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.