Find a Security Clearance Job!



SBEM sensors collect data on a range of weather-related factors, such as cloud cover, winds, precipitation, atmospheric temperature, sea ice conditions, and space weather that may affect the accuracy and operability of other space-based signals.

Polar-orbiting satellites in low Earth orbit constantly circle the earth in an almost north-south orbit over the poles. Each successive orbital pass occurs at the same local time of day, such as early morning, mid-morning, and afternoon. These satellites provide global high-resolution observations ideal for tactical weather support and long range numerical weather prediction. Geostationary satellites maintain a fixed position relative to the earth, collecting data on a specific geographic region and providing real-time monitoring of developing weather conditions.

Weather satellites provide vital support to military operations both in peace and in war. The information from these satellites contributes to the conduct of military operations, allowing bombers to avoid bad weather, and enabling assault troops to take advantage of breaks in cloud cover.

Since the 1960s, the United States has operated two separate meteorological polar-orbiting satellite systems: DOD’s DMSP, and NOAA’s Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES) and Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, the first in the Joint Polar Satellite System. The United States also relies on a European satellite, the Meteorological Operational satellite.

The United States relies on both military and civilian weather satellites. The primary American military weather satellite system is the Air Force constellation of two Defense Meteorological Support Program (DMSP) satellites.(1) The fifth DMSP 5D-2 was launched on 1 December 1990. However, due to an upper stage malfunction, the spacecraft entered an orbit about 100 kilometers lower than planned, sharply reducing its operational utility.(2)

Weather satellites provided Desert Shield forces with sandstorm predictions, as well as information to predict the dispersal of chemical weapon clouds.(3) However, these capabilities were not adequate to predict strong winds and high seas which forced cancellation of a Marine Corps amphibious landing exercise in November 1990.(4)

These military satellites are supplemented by two similar satellites of the civilian National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which are an integral part of the military program.

In May 1994, a Presidential Decision Directive required DOD and the Department of Commerce through NOAA to converge their two separate weather satellite programs into a single program capable of satisfying both military and civilian requirements. Presidential Decision Directive NSTC-2, Convergence of U.S. Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems (May 5, 1994).

As part of convergence plan, DMSP operations were transferred from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department in June 1998, with funding responsibility remaining with the Air Force. Satellite operations were moved to Suitland, Md., where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Satellite Operations provides the command, control and communications for both DMSP and DOC's Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite system. DMSP continues to provide assured, secure, global environmental sensing data to support the warfighter.

The NPOESS program started in 1997; after it was cancelled in 2010 DOD was given responsibility for covering the early morning polar orbit and started a separate program, the Defense Weather Satellite System. The program was cancelled in fiscal year 2012 because of cost and timing considerations. NOAA has developed the Joint Polar Satellite System to meet its responsibility for coverage in the afternoon orbit.

The Department of Defense (DOD) uses data from military, U.S. civil government, and international partner satellite sensors to provide critical weather information and forecasts for military operations. As DOD’s primary existing weather satellite system—the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP)—ages and other satellites near their estimated end of life, DOD faces potential gaps in its space-based environmental monitoring (SBEM) capabilities which may affect stakeholders that use SBEM data, including the military services, the intelligence community, and U.S. civil agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Although the American military is a major user of data from the civilian low altitude weather satellites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Air Force also maintains a constellation of two Defense Meteorological Support Program (DMSP) satellites. The DMSP spacecraft are very similar to their civilian NOAA counterparts, and are manufactured by the same contractor using many common subsystems.

After two unsuccessful attempts to develop follow-on programs from 1997 through fiscal year 2012, including the National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite System (NPOESS), a tri-agency program between DOD, NOAA, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that was canceled in 2010 because of extensive cost overruns and schedule delays, DOD and other stakeholders who rely on SBEM data are now in a precarious position in which key capabilities require immediate and near-term solutions.1 With potential capability gaps starting as early as this year, it is important for DOD to make decisions in a timely manner, but based on informed analysis that considers stakeholder input.

From February 2012 through September 2014, DOD conducted a requirements review and an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to identify and compare the operational effectiveness and life cycle costs of potential solutions for providing SBEM capabilities.2 An AOA—a key analysis in DOD’s acquisition process—is intended to inform a decision on the most cost effective solution for meeting validated capability requirements and identify a wide range of solutions with a reasonable likelihood of providing the needed capabilities.

Ineffective coordination with NOAA — which generally is the signatory to international agreements on space-based weather monitoring data sharing and represents DOD’s interests with international partners on a case-by-case basis — affected the range of capabilities that were fully assessed in Phase 2 of the AOA. Specifically, limited engagement with NOAA contributed to an incorrect assumption about the continued availability of critical data from European satellites.

DOD is developing plans for the Weather System Follow-on (WSF) to provide ocean surface vector wind and tropical cyclone intensity capabilities, though it may not be available in time to avoid short-term gaps. For example, the current and only system that fully meets DOD’s needs for ocean surface vector wind data is expected to reach end of life as early as this year. However, the planned WSF technology demonstration, which DOD officials said will partially meet the requirements, is estimated to launch in 2017, and the WSF system intended to fully meet requirements is estimated to launch in 2022. For the third capability, energetic charged particles, DOD has developed a plan to collect data by hosting sensors on other satellites.


1. NATO AGARD (Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development), Tactical Applications of Space Systems, Avionics Panel Symposium 16-19 October 1989, (AGARD-CP-460, NTIS N90-27438), contains several papers that provide an unusually insightful discussion of the operational utility of this system.

2. "DMSP Misses Intended Mark," Space News, 17 December 1990, page 2.

3. Kiernan, Vincent, "DMSP Satellite Launched to Aid Troops in Middle East," Space News, 10 December 1990, page 6.

4. Walker, Christopher, "Doubts Over Armour And Desert Isolation Sap Morale of Troops," London Times, 21 November 1990, page 12.

Join the mailing list