U.S. Air Force Targets 2015 To Start Weather Satellite Program

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will not seek funding in 2014 for a next-generation weather satellite system but hopes to begin work on the long-deferred program the following year, a senior service official said.

 

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the Air Force expects to spend the next year working on an analysis of alternatives for the next-generation system. The Pentagon is already well into deliberations on its 2014 budget request, which along with the proposed budgets for other U.S. government agencies will be submitted to Congress in February.

The U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense will develop its budget request for 2015 next fall, and the Air Force probably will know by then what the new weather system will look like, Shelton said Sept. 25 here at a National Space Club breakfast. Congress, which canceled the service’s proposed Defense Weather Satellite System last year, provided $123.5 million for a follow-on system this year and the Air Force has requested $2 million for 2013.

In his remarks, Shelton addressed a number of topics including an Air Force missile warning satellite that has yet to enter service despite having launched 16 months ago and the possibility of adopting a new approach to secure satellite communications.

Shelton said it is likely at this point that the Air Force will adopt an alternative approach to the weather satellite system, whose cost was recently pegged at between $4.4 billion and $6.1 billion by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Traditionally the Air Force has operated two weather satellites in polar orbit, each with multiple sensors. The Air Force is studying alternatives that include dispersing the sensors among a larger number of satellite platforms, which in military space parlance is known as disaggregation.

 

Secure Satcom Disaggregation

The Air Force also is considering disaggregating the payload on its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications satellites, Shelton said. The geostationary-orbiting AEHF satellites, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., currently carry separate payloads for command and control of nuclear forces, and for tactical users, but the Air Force anticipates that the latter community will be underserved in the years ahead.

Shelton said the Air Force is considering separating out the strategic and tactical payloads and placing them on “two, three, maybe four satellites” instead of one. He conceded that this architecture could be slightly more expensive than the current approach, but said it would make the Pentagon’s most critical communications capabilities less vulnerable to a “catastrophic cheap shot” type of attack by an adversary.

 

SBIRS Checkout ‘Taking Too Long’

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to complete on-orbit checkout and certification of its first Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite by the end of the calendar year, Shelton said. The spacecraft was launched in May 2011 after a development program that encountered lengthy delays and massive cost overruns.

First-of-a-kind satellites typically take longer to check out and calibrate than follow-on versions, and Shelton said the Air Force is taking a disciplined, step-by-step approach to verifying the SBIRS craft. But he conceded that the process is “taking too long.”

Jeff Smith, vice president of the overhead persistent infrared mission area at SBIRS prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said via email Sept. 26 that the company is committed to work with the Air Force to speed up the process. The satellite, he said, “is exceeding performance expectations and is on schedule to achieve operational certification later this year, per the originally planned timeline established prior to launch.

“Like any first-of-its-kind national security satellite, there are several rigorous tests, disciplined procedures and detailed processes required to fully certify the spacecraft for operational use. As we continue to launch SBIRS spacecraft, we expect to significantly reduce the time needed for these procedures.”

The Air Force already has several years of on-orbit experience with the SBIRS sensors, having launched two aboard classified satellites operating in highly elliptical orbits. The second dedicated SBIRS satellite is slated to launch next year.