Friday, March 10, 2017

Why Does Trump Want to Cut National Weather Satellites?

We take lots of things for granted, and perhaps one of the best examples is the highly accurate weather reports we get on the local news every night.  This is not a small thing.  Businesses and people all make critical decisions based on the forecasts that come from complicated computer models run by the National Weather Service.  Billions of dollars and thousands of lives are saved every year as a result of these weather models.

And why am I talking about weather on a national security blog?  Because accurate weather forecasting is critical to the success of military operations.

Critical to the success of these forecasts is a constellation of several billion dollar satellites that are operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ("NOAA").  Indeed, ninety percent of the data used to make weather forecasts come from satellites.

I was stunned to learn, therefore, that the Trump Administration has targeted NOAA's weather satellite program with a mission-killing 22% budget cut.  In a "pass-back" instruction to NOAA, the Trump Administration's Office of Management and Budget has requested this steep cut.  Weather satellites?  Really? Why?

By way of background, meteorologists rely on two types of NOAA satellites for the data used to make weather forecasts.  One set of satellites sit in geostationary orbit collecting data on a fixed location on the earth.  The other set of satellites orbit the two poles collecting critical data used to predict storms.  Unfortunately, NOAA's satellites are getting old, and we will soon need to replace them.  The polar satellites are actually already in crisis.  They are already beginning to fail, and are well past their expected life.  If they are not replaced very soon, our national weather forecasting capability will be seriously degraded.

Fortunately, NOAA is working on a replacement polar satellite, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System  ("JPSS").  JPSS-1 will be launched this year, and JPSS-2 will be launched in 2021.
The  JPSS program is not cheap (most satellites are not).  NOAA has budgeted $800 million for JPSS this year alone, and NOAA will need hundreds of millions of dollars for the JPSS program until the mid-2020's.

But now the Trump Administration has instructed Commerce to cut $513 million from the NOAA satellite program-- a cut of 22%.  The folks I talk to who are familiar with the NOAA budget think that the only way to make this cut is to cancel the JPSS program.  It will also mean that plans to replace the other weather satellites will be scraped as well.

So why would the Trump Administration want to destroy our weather forecasting capability?  My theory is that these cuts can only be explained by ignorance about the NOAA satellite program combined  with an ideological hostility to climate change research.  Trump's team apparently thinks that NOAA is doing liberal research about climate change, and doesn't understand that the data from these satellites is largely used for weather forecasting and not climate research.

In the end, I suspect that the NOAA weather satellite program will be restored once Trump's team gets a clue about what they are proposing.  This is because there is a strong constituency for accurate weather forecasts--led by the Department of Defense.  It makes we wonder, however, what other boneheaded, and ill-informed budget cuts are in the OBM pass-backs for programs that don't have such a constituency.

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