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The Department of Defense needs more commercial data to weather future storms

FILE – In this Jan. 30, 2014 photo, an RQ7 Shadow unmanned aircraft flies from its pneumatic catapult launcher at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. U.S. military bases in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are failing to harden their installations against long-term climate change as required, even though soaring temperatures and melting ice already are cracking base runways and roads and worsening flood risks up north, the Pentagon’s watchdog office said April 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Dan Joling, File)

Over the past decade, U.S. government agencies have begun to expand the use of commercial data — unlocking access to critical information at speed and scale typically unheard of via a traditional government acquisition process. One clear example is weather data. Shipping food and supplies to a humanitarian crisis, launching satellites or people into space, conducting a military operation, or rescuing someone at sea all require access to timely and accurate weather information that can mean the difference between success or failure and even life or death.

Recognizing the operational imperative of weather data and the burgeoning opportunities to access information more comprehensively and faster through commercial sources, the U.S. Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initiated Commercial Weather Data Pilot (CWDP) programs in 2016 with the support of Congress to evaluate the utility of data collected by commercial companies to improve forecasts and warnings.

In 2016, the only feasible source of commercial weather data was from Radio Occultation which measures variations in existing GPS signals through the atmosphere to infer weather conditions. Since that time, the types of commercial data and applications have been rapidly expanding: from satellite imagery for climate research and intelligence, to wave spectra for sea ice forecasting, to space-based radars and microwave sounders for precipitation and temperature predictions.

NOAA has awarded several commercial data purchase contracts and looks to expand weather data pilots in its Fiscal Year 2023 budget submission. The Air Force also stated its desire to expand commercial data sources as far back as 2019 and then signed a contract for precipitation data in late 2021.

Such public-private partnerships have been increasingly called for to reinforce the U.S. government’s preparedness to analyze climate trends and make life-saving weather predictions. For the Department of Defense (DoD), this is critical to ensure operational safety as well as warfighting effectiveness. In light of this imperative, the Department of Defense, in partnership with NOAA, should expand access to emerging commercial sources of data to get critical weather information into the hands of operators who need it most. The Department can take, at a minimum, the following four steps to broaden and accelerate access to commercial weather data:

1) New commercial data types available now or on the near horizon are poised to fill critical gaps and advance our ability to characterize and predict ocean and weather conditions beyond that of our adversaries. These data types are already improving model performance and have the potential to significantly contribute to the Department of Defense and Air Force’s modern warfighting missions and fulfill a key objective of DOD’s Climate Adaptation Plan.

2) Better alignment of current Air Force and NOAA CWDP programs will allow the two organizations to leverage common contracts, time-consuming quality control and data verification processes, as well as complex data assimilation schemes. Such collaboration would ensure more efficient use of taxpayer dollars and improve weather forecasts for both agencies more rapidly.

3) The pilot programs should increasingly include all military services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force — and the broader Intelligence Community as weather intelligence is integral to every domain in peacetime and in crisis.

4) To maintain a competitive advantage in our great power competition with China, DoD must move faster to leverage commercial technology. Today, DoD investment generally follows a traditional defense acquisition approach that too often results in capabilities being developed over 10 or more years, at great cost, and may no longer be relevant as threats and modern technology evolve. On the other hand, the commercial sector introduces new products continuously.

This past weekend, the Air Force celebrated seven and a half decades as a branch of the United States Armed Services. The service has adopted the catchphrase “Innovate, Accelerate, Thrive – the Air Force at 75.” The leading words in that mantra are no accident, as Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and Chief of Staff General CQ Brown have driven the Department to accelerate innovation from day one as is clearly evident in the Department of the Air Force 2023 budget request.

As we celebrate 75 years of service, we remember the words of the very first chief of staff of the Air Force, General Carl Spaatz, who after World War II stated, “In military operations, weather is the first step in planning and the final determining factor in execution of any mission.” By expanding its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, the Department of Defense and the Air Force, can harness the lessons of the past alongside the power of the commercial sector to weather future storms and advance its competitive technological edge now and in the future.

Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC. He is the former acting and deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting undersecretary and assistant secretary of Commerce, and oceanographer in the U.S. Navy.

Preston Dunlap is the former first chief architect officer and CTO of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force, member of the Senior Executive Service. He was also director of Program Analysis and chief of staff of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Both are strategic advisers to the commercial weather company Tomorrow.io.

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