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House panel wants NRO to take over some Air Force weather missions

DMSP satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin artist's concept

WASHINGTON – A U.S. House panel that oversees military space matters wants to re-assign some of the Air Force’s space weather duties to the National Reconnaissance Office.

In a draft of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 released April 19, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee said it wanted to fence half the funding for the Air Force’s next-generation weather satellite program until the service develops a plan to transition the acquisition authority and funding authority for some space-weather missions to the NRO.

The transition would take place from 2018 through 2022, the draft bill said.

“The committee has been concerned with the Air Force’s lack of planning, coordination, and execution of activities to meet the top two Joint Requirements Oversight Council certified requirements for space-based environmental monitoring,” a report accompanying the bill said.

Those requirements call for the Air Force to provide cloud characterization and in-theater weather imagery. But the next weather satellite the Air Force is scheduled to launch is a technology demonstration that would not provide either type of data, nor would the single satellites the Air Force seeks to develop under its next-generation Weather Satellite Follow-on program.

“These are requirements that the Air Force hasn’t shown interest in,” a House committee staffer said April 18. “The NRO started these programs and has shown competency in dealing with these kinds of things in the past and [Rep. Mike] Rogers felt that if the NRO cares more about them than the Air Force then give them to the NRO.”

Rogers, the Alabama Republican who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee, has been a vocal critic of the Air Force’s weather satellite program. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 authorized $56 million for the Weather Satellite Follow-on, about the $20 million less than the Air Force requested for the roughly $850 million effort to build and launch a three-instrument weather satellite in 2022. The measure also fenced off $28 million pending proof from the Pentagon that the satellite would meet the cloud characterization and in-theater forecasting requirements.

Now the committee is going a step further.

Under the draft bill released April 19, the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the country’s spy satellites, would develop a satellite program to meet those weather needs and transfer it back to the Air Force.

The bill would also fence half of the $119 million the Air Force requested for 2017 until the Air Force developed a transition plan.

The NRO developed the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program in the 1960s, but by the middle of that decade the satellites were transferred to the Air Force.

Congress terminated the DMSP program last year by providing no funding for the program and cancelling the launch of the last DMSP satellite, known as DMSP-20. The move came after the Air Force spent $518 million on the satellite but failed to convince Congress it was needed. Now, that satellite is scheduled for disposal later this year.

Rogers “has been very emphatic that he is not pleased with how the Air Force is dealing with things like DMSP-20 for the past couple of years,” the staffer said.

The draft version of the bill does not seek to restart the DMSP program or launch DMSP-20, which is on track to be disassembled before the NDAA stands to be enacted.

Col. Mike Guetlein, head of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s remote sensing directorate, said in a April 15 interview with SpaceNews that those weather requirements are among several gaps the Air Force is examining to see if they could be met by commercial weather data providers or international partners. As part of that study, the Air Force is evaluating exactly what weather data are or will soon be available, the business model for supplying the data and how “resilient” these commercial and international sources would be in the face of an attack or other event.

A risk assessment on the Defense Department’s weather gaps is due to the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council in the beginning of the May.

The draft NDAA bill for 2017 addresses several other national security space issues including:

  • A review of the charter of the Operationally Responsive Space Office to see if it can be better used in the face of emerging threats from China and Russia.
  • Removing a March 2017 deadline for the Air Force to complete its analysis of alternatives for meeting its wideband satellite communications needs once its  fleet of Wideband Global Satcom satellites reach the end of their service lives. The expected year-long study isn’t scheduled to kick off until October. Committee staffers said they will continue to provide close oversight to the program.

The strategic forces subcommittee is scheduled to markup the draft bill  April 21. A full committee markup, which is expected to include provisions on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, will be released April 25.

SpaceNews.com

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House panel wants NRO to take over some Air Force weather missions

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