It’s not every day the U.S. Air Force wants to throw away a perfectly good satellite. But that’s what’s happening with DMSP-20, a $500 million spacecraft built under the longstanding Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.
World history may have taken a different path without accurate weather information ahead of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Had Gen. Eisenhower ignored his meteorologist’s advice to postpone the invasion one day, experts theorize, heavy seas and high winds would have caused the operation to fail. Asked after the war why the Normandy invasion had been so successful, then- President Eisenhower said,“Because we had better meteorologists than the Germans!”
The Air Force, which has been launching DMSP satellites since the 1960s, told Congress in 2012 that “DMSP provides the only assured source of weather data critical for operating in data-sparse and in antiaccess/ area denial environments.”
So why did the Air Force want to trash the last of these proven satellites?
Already concerned about the cost of storing and launching DMSP 20, a problematic 2012 study helped convince the Air Force it could rely on weather data from NOAA and foreign countries for several key requirements that DMSP addressed.
But serious problems with the Air Force conclusion soon became apparent. First, the Department of Defense was completely outsourcing its two highest-priority weather requirements: cloud characterization and theater weather imagery. When an ally on whom the Air Force planned to rely decided not to replace a key satellite over the Middle East, a serious future coverage gap for critical DoD operations arose, opening the possibility of depending on unpredictable foreign actors. Specifically, the Air Force told Congress, “it does not currently rely on non-allied [such as China or Russia] international sources for environmental data, but it may be required to do so as early as 2017.”
And since DMSP is a polar-orbiting satellite, the Air Force came to recognize that “loss of capability in high latitude locations significantly increases risk to DoD operations.” These concerns, along with some prodding from the broader national security community, led the Air Force to recommit to launching DMSP-20.
I believe we should have stayed the course and launched the satellite. Congress, however, lost confidence in the Air Force’s management of DMSP, its articulation of requirements and its failure to move rapidly in launching it to avoid excess storage costs, which resulted in the termination of the program in the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act.
Regardless of whether you support launching DMSP-20, we should all be extremely disappointed that over $500 million was wasted on building and upgrading a satellite that won’t launch. We could have used the money to buy nearly two Marine Corps infantry regiments.
More galling, this is happening during historic budget shortfalls across the department. It is precisely these types of self-inflicted wounds that make Congress question DoD’s request for increased funding.
As a supporter of our military and someone who thinks this Administration has dangerously underfunded it, I will not allow the DoD to make these type of moves again.
I have yet to hear a credible plan from the Air Force on how its future weather program will meet key warfighter and national requirements. The Air Force needs to understand this is a national priority larger than service concerns.
Today’s troops deserve the strategic advantage offered by access to the best weather data available, just as Eisenhower and the Allies did to achieve victory on D-Day.
Rogers is chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.