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U.S. Air Force’s long-term weather strategy relies heavily on allies

Meteosat-7 Indian Ocean imagery

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Air Force has sent Congress a long-term strategy for weather satellite data, a vision that relies heavily on international partnerships and incorporating information from new satellites from Europe, Korea and India.

Much of the strategy includes plans the Air Force has talked about for years, such as the next-generation Weather Satellite Follow-on program, but it also explicitly lays out how the Pentagon expects to lean on allies for weather data to close some of its looming gaps.

Specifically, the Defense Department will receive weather data from two new Korean weather satellites known as Communication, Ocean, and Meteorological Satellite, two new Indian weather satellites, known as Insat and Oceansat and three new satellites from Europe’s meteorological satellite organization known as Eumetsat for partial coverage of some areas over the next seven years.

‘This reflects the nature of the international weather community,” Winston Beauchamp, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said Aug. 25 in a briefing with reporters. “We have a very robust capability internationally and weather data is one of the less sensitive missions when it comes to sharing.”

In all, the Defense Department will depend on 23 satellite programs for its weather needs in the next decade. Those programs, which include civil, military and international satellites, will be used to meet the Air Force 12 most pressing gaps, first outlined in a 2014 DoD study.

Congress has been increasingly concerned about the Air Force’s strategy to receive the data and requested a report explaining the Pentagon’s plan as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. House Republicans in particular have been critical of how the Defense Department’s handled next-generation weather capabilities.

To that end, the new document, titled “Department of Defense Plan to meet Joint Requirements Oversight Council Meteorological and Oceanographic Collection Requirements” seeks to assure lawmakers the Air Force has indeed thought the issue out.

For government satellites, the Air Force said it expects to have its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, which dates back to the 1960s, operational through 2021. A decision on whether to try to launch the final satellite in the program, known as DMSP-20, is expected next month. The satellite is currently in “safe keeping” in California and is scheduled to be disassembled next month after Congress called for the termination of the program.

The Air Force also plans to launch its Weather Satellite Follow-on program beginning in 2022 and with a replacement satellite launching about every five years thereafter. The White House requested about $500 million for the program over the next five years in its 2017 budget request. In addition, a technology demonstration, known as Operationally Responsive Space-6, which would allow for smaller sensors on subsequent weather satellites in the program, is expected to launch next year.

The Defense Department’s needs include information on cloud characterization, snow depth, soil moisture, and sea ice characterization among others. Weather data in some of those areas will come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs including the Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites (POES), Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP), and Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC). Among the NASA programs expected to contribute are the Aqua/Terra satellites, Calipso and the Solar Moisture Active Passive satellites.

The Air Force also had asked industry for ideas on buying commercial weather data and respondents said they had proposals for sensors and satellites to meet the DoD’s weather needs. But Beauchamp said the market for commercial data has not solidified yet because of the United States’ strong relationship with international partners.

“The consortium (of allies) is so effective at sharing data and providing it for free, that there really isn’t space for someone to charge,” he said.

A Pentagon acquisition review board is expected to meet next month and decide the best path forward for two of the highest priority gap: cloud characterization and theater weather imagery. That decision will also shape the Defense Department’s long-term strategy.

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U.S. Air Force’s long-term weather strategy relies heavily on allies

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