By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday said it plans to launch an aging weather satellite at an expected cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent a gap in forecasting capability and provide another competitive launch opportunity for privately held Space Exploration Technologies Inc, or SpaceX.
General John Hyten, who heads Air Force Space Command, and Air Force Secretary Deborah James, said a decision had been made to launch the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) Flight 20 satellite, which was built in the 1990s.
James told the strategic forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Air Force had little choice but to launch the satellite after European allies reversed a decision to launch a weather satellite of their own.
"We have a gap. We have to take care of ourselves," James told the subcommittee.
Hyten said it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to store and launch the satellite, but the decision would allow the U.S. military to "plug some gaps" in its forecasting capability.
The Air Force recently added new sensors to DMSP F-20 and DMSP F-19, which was launched last April. The DMSP constellation of satellites has been providing weather data to the Pentagon since the 1960s.
The Defense Department, NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched a joint weather satellite program in the 2000s, but the program was revamped and broken up into separate parts after cost overruns and schedule delays.
Hyten said the decision would also give SpaceX another chance to compete against the current monopoly launcher, the United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.
No further details were immediately available about the exact cost, or when the satellite would be launched.
The Air Force has said it expects to certify SpaceX to compete to launch U.S. military and intelligence satellites by June. It could cost extra time and money to modify the satellite to fly on SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
In March, Space News quoted Colonel Michael Guetlein, commander of the the remote sensing systems directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, as saying the Air Force could launch the weather satellite in 2016.
Hyten said James had also decided last week to proceed with a weather satellite that could be launched very quickly under the Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal)