Air Force May Cut Weather Satellite, Crippling Future Military Ops

Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu cited the five fundamental factors in warfare on the first page of his seminal treatise, The Art of War. They were (1) morale, (2) weather, (3) terrain, (4) command, and (5) doctrine. If you’ve ever tried to fly a plane in fog or drive a vehicle through mud, you know why weather was high on the list. Weather can defeat the most worthy causes and the most thoughtful plans if military leaders lack the information needed to cope with its effects. And much of the time, the challenge posed by item three — terrain — is greatly influenced by weather conditions.

You’d think a military service that has been battling the elements since its earliest days would understand the importance of having timely, precise data about the weather in war zones. But in its capacity as steward for military space, the Air Force is thinking about turning the next-generation Defense Weather Satellite System into a bill-payer — in other words, delaying or killing the program so the money can be used for other things. If it succeeds, future warfighters may lack the information they need about cloud cover, precipitation, surface conditions, wind and other weather effects to prevail on the battlefield.

It pains me to write about this, because I just composed a piece for Space News commending Air Force management of the GPS III development program, and I’ve written many times about the service’s wisdom in sticking with plans for the next generation of missile warning satellites. So this isn’t one of those polemics about how the Air Force is letting down the joint community by being too provincial in its priorities. But it is a sad commentary about how budget pressures are forcing military services to make dangerous choices. If the Air Force decides to neglect’s Sun Tzu’s second fundamental factor of warfare for a generation, that really could have life-or-death consequences for some warfighters.

The Chinese apparently still take their ancient strategist’s writings seriously. In 2010 Beijing began orbiting a state-of-the-art weather constellation called Fengyun (“wind cloud”) that will be able to collect all sorts of precise readings about regional weather conditions in Northeast Asia — like distinguishing between clouds, dust and ash particles in the air, or determining soil moisture conditions. America’s military doesn’t have a system that good, and at the rate things are deteriorating in the Pentagon, it may not for decades to come. Instead, the joint force will have to continue relying on a 40-year-old satellite system that still delivers black and white images and can’t detect many vital variations in weather conditions.

This all gets rather complicated because to get the best weather readings satellites need to orbit close to earth, so they can’t just sit above one spot the way communications satellites do. That means to have timely coverage of weather conditions in any given place, you need several satellites per orbit that pass over at the right times of the day. Without the Defense Weather Satellite System, there’s a high probability that someday soon gaps will start appearing in the military’s ability to monitor local weather conditions. After all, many of the satellites in existing constellations are already operating well beyond their design lives. And even if our patchwork plans continue delivering good coverage, there are certain types of effects vital to military operations we won’t be able to monitor or report to the troops in a timely fashion without the new satellites.

Of course, we could always ask the Chinese or our European allies for help with weather reporting. Unless we find ourselves in a diplomatic tiff or war with them, that is. Those kinds of problems have managed to crop up with startling regularity over the years. So to avoid taking undue risk, the Air Force really needs to find some other part of its budget to cut. Delaying the Defense Weather Satellite System could have dire consequences for a lot of soldiers and sailors and airmen who don’t even know this debate is going on inside the Air Staff.