Defense Weather Satellites:

Analysis of Alternatives Is Useful for Certain Capabilities, but Ineffective Coordination Limited Assessment of Two Critical Capabilities

GAO-16-252R: Published: Mar 10, 2016. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 2016.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) conducted an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to identify and compare potential solutions to the department’s need for space-based environmental monitoring (SBEM) capabilities. DOD initiated the AOA in 2012—2 years after the cancellation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, intended to replace DOD’s existing Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and a U.S. civil weather satellite system—with the goal of completing the analysis in time to plan for the fiscal year 2015 budget. DOD conducted a thorough assessment of some capabilities, but pressures to complete the AOA study in time to inform budget planning and decision making for near-term needs imposed limitations on analysis of the two highest-priority capabilities, cloud characterization and theater weather imagery. For example, according to officials, the risk assessment of these two capabilities used a limited weather data set because of the time required to generate and process data.

The AOA team engaged a wide range of DOD stakeholders, but did not effectively coordinate with NOAA, which represents DOD’s interests in international partnerships regarding SBEM data on a case-by-case basis. The lack of formal collaboration with NOAA, such as employing a mechanism that identified roles and responsibilities for the two agencies during the AOA, contributed to an incorrect assumption about the continued availability and reliability of international partner satellites, including European satellites that were expected to provide critical SBEM data. Without effectively coordinating with NOAA or assessing the risk of the assumption, DOD determined it did not need to fully develop alternatives to provide the two highest-priority capabilities.

Despite the limitations of the AOA, it offered analysis that was useful for informing plans for a space-based solution for three capabilities with near-term needs. In addition, the AOA determined that most of the remaining capabilities with military utility could be covered by other sensors and satellites or addressed with modeling development. However, the AOA was less useful as a decision-making tool in support of plans for the two highest-priority capabilities, cloud characterization and theater weather imagery, facing near-term data gaps over the Indian Ocean. Outside of the AOA process, DOD is now examining short-term options for mitigating these gaps, which include continuing to rely on DMSP and obtaining data from European and Indian partners. Longer term plans for these capabilities are undetermined.

Why GAO Did This Study

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 weather satellite system, DMSP, ages, DOD faces potential gaps in its SBEM capabilities, which may affect stakeholders that use SBEM data, including the military services, the intelligence community, and U.S. civil agencies. After two unsuccessful attempts to develop follow-on programs, DOD is now in a precarious position in which key capabilities require immediate solutions. To address this, DOD conducted an AOA to identify and compare the operational effectiveness and lifecycle costs of potential solutions for providing SBEM capabilities.

The Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2015 included a provision for GAO to review the SBEM AOA. This report, which formally transmits information we provided to committee staff in briefings on October 20 and 21, 2015, addresses the extent to which the SBEM AOA: addressed input from stakeholders; assessed the range of alternatives for potential solutions; and informed DOD’s plans for providing SBEM capabilities. In addition, Senate Report No. 114-49 to accompany S. 1376, a bill for the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2016, included a provision for GAO to evaluate whether launching DMSP-20 is the most cost-effective way to cover an expected SBEM data gap over the Indian Ocean. In conducting this review, we found there was limited cost information in making this determination. Further, during the course of our audit work, DOD moved to terminate DMSP-20 in December 2015 due to lack of funding for fiscal year 2016.

To conduct this work, we reviewed relevant DOD and GAO documents to develop an understanding of the requirements of an effective AOA, reviewed DOD’s AOA documents and interviewed DOD officials, including stakeholders within the military services, and NOAA.

What GAO Recommends

To help ensure DOD is sufficiently informed about the availability and reliability of data from U.S. civil government and international partner satellites as it plans for future SBEM capabilities that rely on such satellites, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense ensure the leads of future SBEM planning efforts establish formal mechanisms for coordination and collaboration with NOAA that specify roles and responsibilities and ensure accountability for both agencies. DOD concurred with the recommendation.

For more information, contact Cristina T. Chaplain at (202) 512-4841 or chaplainc@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure DOD is sufficiently informed about the availability and reliability of data from U.S. civil government and international partner satellites as it plans for future SBEM capabilities that rely on such satellites, the Secretary of Defense should ensure the leads of future SBEM planning efforts establish formal mechanisms for coordination and collaboration with NOAA that specify roles and responsibilities and ensure accountability for both agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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