By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon is expected to reach decisions in coming months on how to meet its weather forecasting needs after the 2012 termination of a nearly $15 billion program being built by Northrop Grumman Corp, a senior official told Reuters on Thursday.
Douglas Loverro, deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, said Pentagon officials were weighing the possibility of replacing the large satellite system that Northrop was slated to build with a series of smaller, less expensive satellites in the $200 million to $300 million range.
Those decisions, expected in several months, would help the Pentagon move toward what it describes as a "disaggregated" approach to national security satellites, said Loverro.
By building and launching a larger number of smaller satellites, officials have said they hope to reduce the threat that U.S. national security needs could be compromised by an attack on a single large satellite.
Smaller satellites are also cheaper to launch into orbit and take less time to build. The Air Force is also looking at the possibility of loading sensors onto other government or commercial satellites - a process called "hosted payloads."
Northrop and other big satellite makers such as Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp, as well as many smaller players in the satellite and rocket launch business, are waiting for details about how the Air Force plans to meet the military's need for weather forecasts.
The Air Force launched an analysis of alternatives after the 2010 collapse of a multibillion-dollar weather satellite program known as the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, that was being built by Northrop Grumman for the Air Force, NASA and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"There are many of us who believe that we will save money when we go to a more resilient architecture because we can use smaller satellites," Loverro told Reuters.
Loverro said the Air Force and the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office were now analyzing the military's weather forecasting needs, and some funding for a new weather satellite program would be included in the fiscal 2015 budget plan now being drafted.
He said the analysis was confirming what many officials had long suspected: "We could do with a lot less weather investment than we had."
With Pentagon spending due to decline from projected levels, many companies are exploring ways to meet the government's emerging need for more affordable satellites.
Air Force officials in April said the follow-on weather program would likely include a variety of options rather than relying on a single complex and large-scale satellite packed full of a variety of different sensors.
Boeing has unveiled a family of smaller satellite prototypes called Phantom Phoenix that could be quickly and affordably manufactured and configured for specific missions.
Lockheed this week submitted a proposal for a program run by the Air Force that is exploring ways to put sensors on commercial satellites.
Other smaller firms are also looking for a foothold in the next-generation military weather satellite market.
Moog Inc announced in April that it had invested in PlanetIQ, a start-up company that aims to launch 12 small 75-kg (165-lb) satellites that would provide highly accurate and real-time temperature and other weather data.
Exelis Inc, which builds payloads, or instruments, for a variety of satellites, including weather missions, is also hoping to play a role in the new weather satellite system.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)