The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the U.S. desperately needs weather satellite data from China and Russia, but Congress says no

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The U.S. military’s eyes in the skies over the turbulent Middle East will go partially dark in 2017 and it faces the prospect of a critical gap in weather data.

Both China and Russia will generate comparable data, but Congress has made clear that the U.S. cannot — as a matter of security — receive data from these nations. The use of Chinese or Russian data could expose U.S. weather prediction systems to interference or tampering, compromise military operations (the importance of which is elaborated on in the footnote at the bottom of this post), and set into motion the threat for weather cyberwarfare.

In this analysis, I expand on why this data gap matters and why filling the gap from potential adversaries would represent such a tactical risk.

The looming gap in weather data over the Middle East

For years, the U.S. and its allies have been relying upon Europe’s geosynchronous Meteosat-7 weather satellite to provide continuous views of cloud cover, precipitation and wind over the “hot-zones” of the Middle East and surrounding regions. However, Meteosat-7 must be “retired” in April 2017 and there is neither an existing capability nor plan by the U.S. or Europeans to adequately replace it and the critical information it provides in the near future.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is likely to miss this data the most, as it requires continuous real-time monitoring of current and near-term changes in weather elements. That information is most vital in the latter stages of mission planning, preparation, execution and ultimately success for any land, sea and/or air operation.

The Air Force recently agreed, reluctantly, to proceed with a plan to launch its last and long-mothballed legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite as a partial, short-term measure to fill the looming coverage gap. However, it still faces some congressional hurdles. Not to mention, DMSP is a polar orbiter which provides observations over the area of interest only twice a day,  unlike geostationary satellites which would monitor the region continuously.

As the DMSP satellite is considered a temporary, patchwork fix, the Congressional Subcommittee on Strategic Forces has introduced legislation instructing the Air Force to go “back to the drawing board” with its Weather Satellite Follow-on program, intended to meet military requirements by 2021.

But beginning in 2017 and continuing at least several years beyond, China and Russia will operate the only geostationary weather satellites Feng-Yun -2G, Electro-L, respectively) able to provide continual sky views over the Middle East. Nevertheless, DOD has been compelled by congressional pressure not to use Chinese or Russian satellites to fill the looming gap left by the loss of Meteosat-7.

The risks of receiving satellite intelligence from a potential adversary

Some of the reasons Congress objects to U.S. use of Chinese or Russian satellite information are rather obvious and straightforward, but others are more cryptic.

The most obvious reason for rejecting use of Chinese and Russian-operated satellites, not surprisingly, are the risks of relying on these nations, given both history and current strained relationships with the United States.

The origins of such concerns date to congressional consternation arising from U.S. Africa Command’s use of China’s Apstar-7 to provide broader geographical coverage for communications. The screaming message sent then and heard now is that, especially at times of international tension, the military is exposed to the risk that China or Russia could turn off our “eyes and ears” at any time.

In any potential conflict with the Chinese or Russians, any denial of satellite data could have critical ramifications for U.S. ability to conduct missions and/or achieve a successful outcome. Even if the data flow were maintained, it’s well within the realm of reasonable speculation to create bogus, misleading information by clandestinely manipulating observations in time and space – and very possibly doing so without being detected.

Importantly, the very nature of modern numerical weather analysis and prediction opens the distinct possibility of cyberwarfare, i.e. an adversary hacking into and interfering with U.S. computer systems, with potentially significant consequences. The arena here includes databases containing weather observations of all types and sources, as well as the computer forecasting models and the centers that both use and produce them.

The unclassified reality of such a hacking threat was brought to the fore recently when The Washington Post reported: “Hackers from China breached the federal weather network recently, forcing cyber security teams to seal off data vital to disaster planning, aviation, shipping and scores of other crucial uses.”

[Chinese hack U.S. weather systems, satellite network]

When NOAA’s system was breached, it claimed to not know whether the hackers removed material or inserted malicious software into its system, but the implications leave little doubt that this was real possibility. The NOAA system is used by military forecasters as well as civilians. The Defense Department also relies upon weather guidance from the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC) and has access to the military modeling system of the U.K. Met Office.

[Air Force’s plan to drop U.S. forecast system for U.K. model draws criticism]

Hence, it’s well within the realm of possibility that that an adversary could manipulate the observational data and model predictions at some critical time to the disadvantage of DOD weather-dependent decision making. Also, it’s likely this could be accomplished without being detected.

We know even very small differences in computer analysis and prediction systems can result in decreased skill and increased levels of uncertainty (value) of forecasts (see schematic illustration below).

Meanwhile, over the past several years, China has developed its own state-of-the-art weather modeling system. Naturally, in anticipating the possibility of conflict, what can be done by one party can be exercised by the other, defensively and/or offensively. The potential of weather wars in cyberspace is quite real.



It’s an axiom of military planning and strategy that weather can be decisive in the outcome of battles and various tactical missions on land, sea and in the air. For millennia, serendipity alone determined which side gained a  critical advantage from weather events. There was little or no basis to reliably assess current or very short-term changes in weather conditions other than what one could see or feel. Nor, of course, was there a scientific basis to predict weather from just hours to several days in advance.

That changed only recently in historical time frames with advances in observational platforms, especially radar and satellite remote sensing, which can “see” — in near real time — current conditions worldwide. Coupled with the advent of high-speed computers and the development of sophisticated prediction models, forecasts of critical parameters are routinely available for consideration in making crucial weather dependent decisions.

Either due to relatively inferior weather analysis and forecast systems or the consequences of “information warfare” (aka, “cyberwarfare”), the side with the most accurate, timely and reliable (least uncertain) weather information is most likely to be able to use that information to its advantage and to the disadvantage of an adversary. Among examples are projected hurricane-typhoon intensity and track, storminess generally, dust storms, winds and sea state.