The U.S. Space Force has announced its plan to launch two weather monitoring satellites next year, as it seeks a long-term replacement for its aging satellite fleet. The current satellites are essential for environmental monitoring but are insufficient for modern military missions. The U.S. military will rely on data from various partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Europe’s Eumetsat, and the Japan Meteorological Agency, to supplement its capacity.
The Director of Weather for the U.S. Air Force, Col. Patrick Williams, stated that the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) constellation, which supplies vital observational capabilities, is outdated. With only two functioning satellites left, the refresh rate is insufficient for military operations. Efforts to replace the DMSPs have reportedly been inadequate for the past 20 years, leading to a capability gap that has yet to be resolved.
As part of future programs, the Space Force plans to launch prototype cubesats and small EO/IR satellites under the Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Weather Systems (EWS) program. They will serve similar functions as the DMSP satellites. Additionally, the Space Force intends to launch two Weather System Follow-on Microwave (WSF-M) satellites to collect data on ocean surface conditions and other atmospheric factors.
However, the progress of these projects has been criticized for being too slow, and there is currently no long-term plan to acquire a constellation of EO/IR satellites. According to senior fellow Tim Ryan, a minimum of 12 satellites would be required to achieve a one-hour refresh rate. Ryan emphasized the need for accurate cloud cover data for munitions launches by the military and for planning satellite imagery collections by intelligence agencies.
The U.S. Air Force, responsible for weather data collection and analysis, has established partnerships with various organizations to ensure its demands are met. However, there is a risk in relying on others for data, and continued efforts are being made to develop reliable in-house capabilities. The Space Force recently acquired a retired NOAA weather satellite to address coverage gaps over the Indian Ocean.
Lt. Col. Joseph Maguadog, overseeing the EWS program, stated that the remaining DMSP satellites still have a few more years of life. Studies are underway to determine the most suitable replacement for the aging constellation. The U.S. military aims to deliver the required refresh rates by working within a family of systems that includes partnerships with NOAA, the European Meteorological Agency, and the Japan Meteorological Agency.
Efforts are being made to develop smaller and more cost-effective satellites, with the goal of disaggregating the functions of older satellites into multiple smaller spacecraft. The Space Systems Command is collaborating with weather data users to ensure that the small satellite architecture meets their operational needs. Regardless of the future satellites acquired, partnerships with NOAA and other allies will continue to be crucial for the success of the U.S. Space Force’s weather monitoring capabilities.