Earlier this year, the White House decided to rethink the government’s next-generation weather satellite, splitting the effort into two simpler programs that would be easier to execute. One program will serve the needs of civilian users, and the other will serve the needs of military users. Dividing the program was the only way to assure the military would get more timely, detailed weather information soon, since existing weather satellites are based on 20-year-old technology. In wartime, having reliable information on sea states, sandstorms, temperature levels, soil moisture and the like can be a matter of life and death.
The name of the new military program is the Defense Weather Satellite System, or DWSS. A panel chaired by Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter decided in August what capabilities it must have, and how they should be fielded. Unfortunately, the plan for the program did not reach Congress before members made budget decisions for the 2011 fiscal year, and they predictably claimed much of the requested money for other purposes. The highest amount set aside for DWSS, by House appropriators, was $175 million — only half of what the administration requested. That amount is the bare minimum needed to preserve the technical teams supporting the program. The lower amounts specified by other committees would greatly delay the program, if not kill it.
Congress can hardly be faulted for its doubts. Prudence dictates that hundreds of millions of dollars not be allocated to the program without a credible spending plan. But that plan now exists. Warfighters must have better weather information for both safety and operational effectiveness, and the new program was structured to avoid some of the problems seen in previous efforts. Having spent $5 billion and many years of intensive engineering development to get to this point, DWSS should be a relatively low-risk effort. If design and engineering teams are disbanded due to lack of money, they will simply have to be reconstituted later at higher cost. In the meantime, the price-tag for other space programs — both classified and unclassified — will rise as economies of scale are lost through the removal of DWSS work.
Let’s face it: the search for a next-generation weather satellite has not been the federal government’s finest hour. There have been numerous mis-steps and mistakes. But the need of military and civilian users for better weather information has not changed, and at least on the military side any progress towards delivering that information begins with DWSS. So instead of punishing the Executive Branch for its past transgressions, Congress needs to give the program enough money to keep it viable. It won’t do to have our military vehicles bogged down in the mud somewhere in Afghanistan because soldiers didn’t hear about a storm before they launched their operation.
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