Emerging concerns over US Central Command access to weather satellite data

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The issue of providing weather data support for U.S. Central Command caught the attention of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Updated May 2 with new information from Eumetsat

WASHINGTON — U.S. military forces in the Middle East and South Asia receive weather data from the European weather satellite organization Eumetsat that covers the Indian Ocean.

This is a mission that Eumetsat had planned to complete now, but has been extended to fill the Central Command void until the United States comes up with a more permanent solution. When an old Meteosat satellite began to run out of life in 2016, Eumetsat moved its Meteosat 8 as part of an international Indian Ocean coverage effort requested by the World Meteorological Organization, the director said. General of Eumetsat, Alain Ratier, in a press release. SpaceNews. “It was not at the request of the US Department of Defense,” he added. “Eumetsat has received no such request.”

The Air Force, meanwhile, is considering using an existing operational National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration geostationary environmental satellite as a temporary fill.

The issue of providing weather data support for U.S. Central Command caught the attention of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. The subcommittee is concerned that CENTCOM relies on foreign support for weather data, and also does not seem convinced that an aging NOAA satellite is the solution.

In its National Defense Authorization Act section for fiscal year 2019, the subcommittee directs the Secretary of the Air Force “to develop a plan to provide U.S. Central Command persistent weather imagery for the command’s area of ​​operations beginning no later than January 1, 2026.”

Specifically, lawmakers want to see a plan by March 1, 2019, that “does not rely on data provided by a foreign government or include the relocation of legacy geostationary operational environmental satellites.” They also want an estimate of the costs of the proposed plan.

Ajay Mehta, acting deputy assistant administrator for NOAA’s satellite and information service systems, said negotiations with the Air Force were continuing. “As part of a framework agreement on cooperation in environmental monitoring from space, NOAA is working with the US Air Force to assess whether a remnant GOES satellite can meet its coverage needs. Indian Ocean,” he said in a statement. SpaceNews.

Former NOAA administrator and retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher said the concern expressed by lawmakers was understandable. “Using an older satellite to cover CENTCOM’s area of ​​responsibility carries the risk that instruments aging beyond their advertised lifespan may fail,” he said. SpaceNews. “A more permanent solution is clearly preferable. All instruments that exceed these lifetimes are risky.

Lautenbacher is in talks with the Air Force to offer a “commercial option” to fill the void. He is the CEO of GeoOptics, a Silicon Valley company that is developing a constellation of small satellites to collect data on Earth’s climate and environment from low Earth orbit.

Air Force weather director Ralph Stoffler said CENTCOM coverage was a top priority. “The challenge in our business is that 95% of the data we use comes from the international community,” he said in an interview in January. “We try to create a balance between what we get from international partners and business partners.”

Stoffler oversees the Air Force’s $320 million-a-year weather program, with a staff of 4,300 who support both the Air Force and military around the world. Accurate weather data is essential to any military operation. Battlefield commanders need long range forecasts ranging from 16 days for the Air Force to 45 days for the Army.

Since the mid-1990s, CENTCOM has relied on European research satellites. “Europe decided some time ago that they didn’t need these satellites because Russia and China populate this part of the world,” Stoffler said. Europe agreed to continue providing cover that buys the Air Force time to produce alternatives. “NOAA has been helpful,” he said. “GOES in orbit are as good or better than European satellites.”

Ratier said Metosat 5, 6 and 7 provided 20 years of uninterrupted observations over the Indian Ocean. The international effort to cover the Indian Ocean involves Eumetsat, Russia, China and India, he said. “Meteosat 8 was moved to 41.5 degrees East to optimize coverage from zero to 82 degrees East through the combination of two Meteosat and two Insat 3D satellites with sufficient overlap for cross-calibration.

Under an agreement between Eumetsat and NOAA, US users have real-time access to images from all Meteosat satellites.

The Air Force requested $63.7 million in its fiscal year 2019 budget for a “Weather Space Vehicle Ground Relay Station to execute the GOES Residual Capacity Utilization Plan for fill the meteorological gap 1 (cloud characterization) and 2 (theater weather imagery) requirements over the Indian Ocean region.

Commercial services could also be considered, Stoffler said. “We’ll see what the market supports.”

Lautenbacher said small and nanosatellite developments are in their infancy, “but product diversity and capability will increase rapidly as customers indicate their needs and purchasing interest.”

Acquiring data from a commercial company versus building government-owned satellites are very different business models, and finding common ground has been difficult for the Department of Defense as the new space industry continues to expand the types of satellite services available to government.

The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center issued a “wanted sources” solicitation for the weather system tracking program in November. The objective was to begin “market research to identify capable industrial sources with complete system solutions to meet the Department of Defense’s planned space environmental monitoring requirements for cloud characterization and theater weather imagery.” “.

A spokesperson said SMC wants to review “all available industry solutions” with the goal of “initial launch capability” in fiscal year 2024.

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