U.S. Military Faces Weather Coverage Gap over Hot Zones

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has warned lawmakers that it may have to depend on Chinese, Indian or Russian satellites as early as 2017 for weather coverage of the war-wracked region that includes the Middle East and Afghanistan.

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. The satellite provided cloud characterization, used in flying operations, and weather imagery, both of which were among the most pressing data gaps identified in a recent Air Force weather study.

The result might be “diminished battlespace awareness” over Central Command’s area of responsibility, the Air Force said in a presentation to lawmakers late last year, according to briefing slides obtained by SpaceNews.

The issue surfaced during a Feb. 26 hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee when Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) asked senior Defense Department witnesses whether they had reservations “about purchasing potentially sensitive information” from Russia or China that would support U.S. troops.

“I have concerns that we have enough diversity in our capabilities so that we are not dependent on one particular country that may not be there to support [us] in the future,” U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, responded. “We have to be very careful with that.”

Cecil Haney
“I have concerns that we have enough diversity in our capabilities so that we are not dependent on one particular country that may not be there to support [us] in the future,” U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said. Credit: Naval Institution

Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said he was “not familiar with a plan for anyone to rely on the Chinese or Russians.”

But according to the Air Force briefing slides, the Defense Department “currently does not rely on non-allied international sources for environmental data, but may be required to do so as early as 2017.”

The service acknowledged that dependence on non-U.S. satellites “does introduce added risk” to Central Command’s situational awareness capabilities.

Although, Eumetsat, the Air Force and the civilian U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operate weather satellites in polar orbit, these do not provide constant surveillance of the area in question.

Meteosat-7 provides persistent coverage from its geostationary-orbit position of 57 degrees east longitude over the Indian Ocean. The only other geostationary weather satellites expected to be in service over that area after 2017 are operated by China, India and Russia, the slides indicate.

In the slides, the Air Force said it was encouraging NOAA to find additional international data sources, a task that has become “a higher priority” following Eumetsat’s decision.

Use of data from Chinese satellites likely would be problematic. In 2013, the House Armed Services Committee scolded the Defense Department for using satellite communications capacity that was indirectly leased from a company with substantial Chinese government ownership.

In November, NOAA acknowledged it fell victim to “an Internet-sourced attack” on four of its websites, disrupting the flow of satellite data to the National Weather Service. Then-Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a vocal China hawk who was chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that funds NOAA and NASA, accused China of being behind the attack.

Wolf has since retired, but his successor as subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), has pledged to stay vigilant with respect to China.

Russia would be equally troublesome. House Armed Services Committee members, including Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the strategic forces subcommittee chairman, have opposed any perceived cooperation with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

The committee is expected to take up this issue in hearings this spring, congressional sources said.