Marines Afghanistan
Khowst-Gardez Pass, Afghanistan Dec. 30, 2004 Marines. Credit: Marine Corps/Cpl. James L. Yarboro

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force is asking industry how it could head off  looming  gaps in the collection of high-priority weather data.

In a broad agency announcement released Aug. 3, the Air Force said it was looking for solutions to provide cloud characterization  and theater weather imagery by 2019.

In 2014, the Air Force examined potential gaps in space-based weather data. That study ranked cloud characterization, used for long-range strike operations, and theater weather imagery, used in forecasting and battlespace awareness, as the Pentagon’s top priorities. The Air Force foresees a gap in coverage in both areas around 2020.

Since them, lawmakers have accused the Air Force of ignoring the data gaps for too long.

In the Aug. 3 announcement, the Air Force said it would be open to acquiring a new government-owned satellite, buying the weather data from a commercial company, or developing a solution that combines government-supplied missile warning data with conventional weather data.

The Air Force said it was considering a two-phase approach to evaluating potential solutions. White papers are due Aug. 15. The Air Force will then review the submissions, and ask for full proposals by early November. As many as five contracts, each worth as much as $500,000 and lasting six months, will be awarded Dec. 5.

The Air Force wants a solution in place by summer 2019.

The accelerated timeline is due in part because the Air Force has said it expects to submit a series of options on how to close the data gaps to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a Pentagon acquisition review board, later this fall.

Those options are expected to include the possibility of new military satellites, such as one built in conjunction with the Operationally Responsive Space Office, relying on international partners or buying commercial weather data from a private company.

The Aug. 3 announcement marks one of the first times the Air Force has formally suggested that the missile warning data from its Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) could help other missions.

In recent months, the Air Force has given other government agencies, research labs, universities and industry representatives access to SBIRS imagery in the hopes of finding new military and civilian uses for the data. This spring, it opened a research lab in Boulder, Colorado, to explore greater use of the information.

At the same time, the Air Force released on Aug. 2 another broad agency announcement for what it described as “innovative concepts, methods or approaches” to using the SBIRS data. Specifically, the Air Force was looking for a series of improvements to the SBIRS system, including in data storage, user experience, and data fusion.

The Air Force said it planned to make awards ranging from $250,000 to $1 million through next summer. The Defense Department has budgeted $6.2 million for activity through 2017.

The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center plans to hold an industry day on the announcement Aug. 12.

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.