UPDATED: Washington: Northrop Grumman knows the Defense Weather Satellite System neck is stretched out beneath the Pentagon budget cutters ax. Advocates like defense consultant Loren Thompson are rushing out to defend it. The Air Force is getting ready to kill the satellite program, which is a stepchild of the late unlamented (except by Northrop) NPOESS weather satellite program.

NPOESS, as those who have followed it know well, was one of the most dysfunctional space acquisition programs of the last decade — and since space programs were about the worst overseen by the Pentagon, that is saying something. The Pentagon formally killed NPOESS in March last year. It got split into two efforts, one led by NOAA and one by the Air Force. The NOAA effort is a $1.7 billion, two-satellite program. The other is the Defense Weather Satellite System, for which $445 million was requested for fiscal 2011 and 2012. Almost $1.1 billion was requested for the NOAA portion of the program.

A source close to the program confirmed that the Pentagon wants DWSS to be killed to pay for other bills. More significantly this may mark a fundamental decision by the U.S. military to give up the pursuit of sophisticated new weather satellites for the foreseeable future and instead rely on two satellites delivered in the mid-1980s. Those could be supplemented by newer sensors placed on other satellites to make sure the U.S. military does not lose crucial capabilities such as the ability to tell dust from clouds and to judge the firmness of soil and its ability to support heavy vehicles such as MRAPs and tanks.

“They actually think they are going to walk away from this whole mission area,” said the source close to the program.

But Josh Hartman, who used to oversee weather and other satellite programs at the Pentagon, said the older satellites should handle the work. “It’s not a perfect solution but if it was kept in storage the way it was supposed to be… then theoretically well have have a good satellite,” he said.

“Affordability is the key. It’s not just the key; it’s the lock; it’s the door; it’s the house,” argues Hartman.

This decision is really about risk management, Hartman and several other sources close to the program agreed. The Pentagon, under Hartman, made the basic decision several years ago to rely more heavily on data from European weather satellites for data later in the day. In order to ensure potential enemies can’t get their hands on European weather data, a list known as the Data Denial Implementation Plan was created by the Europeans at the request of the United States. The U.S. military satellites provide data during the most crucial part of the day — the early morning — when battles begin. Also, data from the early part of the day can be extrapolated if we lose data from later in the day.

If the decision is made to kill DWSS, it may mean that a sensor about which the Army and Special Operations community care quite a bit — the Microwave Imager Sensor (MIS) — may not be deployed for some time, if ever. MIS measures solid moisture, a key variable in judging the ability of troops to move over terrain at speed, especially in heavy vehicles. It also provides data on temperatures, precipitation and sea surface winds. MIS could be hosted on another satellite — civil or military, a solution that Hartman and others have advocated for years. But there are no current plans to do so. And there may be technical challenges.

But that may be mitigated if both DSMP satellites work as originally designed and the MIS sensor or something similar is deployed. And it looks as if the Pentagon has decided that risk calculus is acceptable.

Meanwhile, China has successfully executed a space docking with the first component of its space lab. And, as Loren Thompson, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, noted in his piece yesterday slamming the Pentagon for putting DWSS on the chopping block:

“In 2010 Beijing began orbiting a state-of-the-art weather constellation called Fengyun (“wind cloud”) that will be able to collect all sorts of precise readings about regional weather conditions in Northeast Asia — like distinguishing between clouds, dust and ash particles in the air, or determining soil moisture conditions. America’s military doesn’t have a system that good, and at the rate things are deteriorating in the Pentagon, it may not for decades to come.”

One of the ironic side effects of canceling DWSS may well be increased support for the NOAA weather satellite program. In the end that will probably mean that the U.S. ends up spending even more than originally planned on NPOESS, meaning the program’s cancellation was essentially for naught. (Note that Northrop has a website called “Protect DWSS.” It includes a nice note reminding company employees that they must use their home computers to support the program or risk violating lobbying laws.)

Eds. NOTE: This article originally identified the civl satellite program as a NASA project, although the money and management are handled by NOAA. Since NASA is the acquisition authority on this project I identified it as a NASA project, especially given the experience of NPOESS. But Marcia Smith, one of the top American experts on space policy and management, told me I’m just plain wrong. If Marcia says it, it must be true. So I’ve changed the text to read NOAA where NASA had appeared.