National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Weather Service Modernization and NOAA Corps Issues

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-03-13.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment,
                          Committee on Science, House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
1 p.m.
                          NATIONAL OCEANIC AND
March 13, 1997

                          Weather Service Modernization
                          and NOAA Corps Issues

                          Statement of Joel C. Willemssen
                          Director, Information Resources Management
                          Accounting and Information Management Division

                      Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                      We are pleased to be here today to discuss our work in three areas under
                      the responsibility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
                      (NOAA), a component of the Department of Commerce. At your request, we
                      will, first, share preliminary findings of our ongoing audit work relating to
                      the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Advanced Weather Interactive
                      Processing System (AWIPS), the linchpin of NWS’ $4.5-billion modernization
                      program; second, discuss our report being released today concerning
                      NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)
                      system, which plays a vital role in weather forecasting; and third,
                      summarize findings from our report issued last year on the NOAA
                      Commissioned Corps, relating to issues involving Corps officers’ receiving
                      military pay, allowances, and benefits. Attached to my statement today is a
                      listing of prior reports and testimony dealing with these issues.

                      Mr. Chairman, the National Weather Service has a mission of utmost
NWS’ Advanced         importance to all Americans—helping to protect life and property through
Weather Interactive   early forecasting and warnings of potentially dangerous weather. Almost
Processing System     15 years ago, NWS decided to modernize its automated systems to improve
                      forecasting while downsizing operations. The NWS modernization has
(AWIPS)               entailed acquiring and putting into operation new and vastly more capable
                      weather observing systems; these include the Next Generation Weather
                      Radars (NEXRAD), GOES satellites, and the Automated Surface Observing
                      System (ASOS).

                      While NWS acknowledges that unresolved operational issues concerning
                      some of these observational systems remain, it has found that, overall, the
                      new radars and satellites have greatly improved forecasts and warnings.
                      An example of how important such improvements are was seen barely 2
                      weeks ago, with the severe weather endured by thousands in the
                      south-central United States. Without the capabilities provided by satellites
                      and radar, the speed with which forecasts and warnings of this dangerous
                      weather were communicated to the public would have been reduced,
                      possibly with more deadly consequences.

                      AWIPS—the  system that integrates and interprets these data—is the
                      centerpiece of the NWS modernization, designed to serve as both a
                      decision-support and communications system. Its network of
                      sophisticated workstations is intended to support forecasters by
                      processing and analyzing large volumes of data coming in from a multitude

                      Page 1                                                  GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
of observing systems, satellites, and radars. In concert with NWS computer
models of weather patterns, AWIPS will use these data to aid local
forecasters in making specific weather predictions and issuing timely
warnings of threatening meteorological events. In addition, AWIPS is to
provide the conduit for national communications, the structure through
which NWS field offices, national centers, and customers will communicate.
Through AWIPS, the Weather Service expects to tap a reservoir of data from
its new observing systems—data that its current, aging processing and
communications system cannot handle.

However, as we have reported several times over the past few years, full
utilization of the data from these observing systems has been prevented by
delays and continuing problems with AWIPS.1 We have made several
recommendations that we feel will strengthen NWS’ ability to acquire AWIPS.
Progress to date has, however, been uneven, and we continue to be
concerned about risks in the development of AWIPS—risks that threaten the
system’s ability to be completed on time, within budget, and perform with
the functional capability that AWIPS must be able to provide. Until AWIPS is
deployed and functioning properly, NWS will not be able to take full
advantage of the nearly $4 billion investment it has made in these new
observing systems. Because of these concerns, the NWS modernization was
placed on our list of high-risk government programs in 1995, where it
remains today.2

After early successes in demonstrating the technical feasibility of system
functions, design problems and disagreements between NOAA and the
development contractor in 1993-1994 stymied progress. On the
recommendation of an independent review team, some development
responsibility was brought in-house—to NWS/NOAA labs—in 1995. The
AWIPS program strategy was changed again in 1996, when even more
development responsibility—for AWIPS data acceptance, processing, and
display capabilities—was brought in-house, primarily to NOAA’s Forecast
Systems Laboratory (FSL). At that time, NWS decided to use FSL’s prototype
system, called Weather Forecast Office (WFO)-Advanced, which was being
developed parallel to AWIPS as a risk-reduction tactic. NWS officials chose

 Weather Forecasting: Recommendations to Address New Weather Processing Systems Development
Risks (GAO/AIMD-96-74, May 13, 1996); Weather Forecasting: NWS Has Not Demonstrated that New
Processing System Will Improve Mission Effectiveness (GAO/AIMD-96-29, Feb. 29, 1996); Weather
Forecasting: New Processing System Faces Uncertainties and Risks (GAO/T-AIMD-96-47, Feb. 29,
1996); Weather Service Modernization: Despite Progress, Significant Problems and Risks Remain
(GAO/T-AIMD-95-87, Feb. 21, 1995); and Weather Forecasting: Improvements Needed in Laboratory
Software Development Processes (GAO/AIMD-95-24, Dec. 14, 1994).
 High-Risk Series: Information Management and Technology (GAO/HR-97-9, February 1997).

Page 2                                                                GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
WFO-Advanced because of its demonstrated superior data acceptance,
processing, and display capability over the contractor’s version, hoping
that using it would enable the agency to deploy these AWIPS capabilities to
field operations as quickly as possible. The contractor did, however, retain
responsibility for communications, system monitoring and control, and
other capabilities. With these changes, NWS expects AWIPS to be fully
deployed in 1999, at a total cost of $550 million.

As we reported in December 1994, NOAA/NWS labs are research and
development labs that primarily develop prototype systems, and as such
did not employ software development processes characteristic of a
production environment. Specifically, the labs did not have the software
quality assurance and configuration management processes, among
others, sufficient to ensure production of stable, reliable software code.3
Developing software code for use in one or two prototype installations
requires a far less rigorous approach than what is needed when
nationwide deployment is planned. However, some of the software the
NOAA/NWS labs were developing was intended for operational use in AWIPS
and was essentially being handed off directly from the labs to the
contractor. We therefore recommended in 1994 that NWS and NOAA
strengthen their processes for developing production-quality software

Now, with the 1995 and 1996 AWIPS development changes, significantly
more design and development responsibility has been transferred to the
government, in particular to NOAA’s FSL. In visiting FSL in Boulder,
Colorado, just last week, we found that—with the exception of one
subsystem that we specifically discussed in 1994—the question of
capability remained: Lab quality assurance and configuration management
processes for production-level software were still lacking. However, NWS
and NOAA officials said that they have heeded our 1994 recommendations
and are improving their processes in other ways. They said that, in order
to preserve the labs’ research and development missions, they do not wish
to impose any unnecessarily rigorous software development procedures
on the labs. Instead, NOAA management now plans to play a more active
role in preparing the government-furnished software for the contractor.

 Software quality assurance refers to a program that independently (1) monitors whether the
software and the processes used to develop it fully satisfy established standards and procedures, and
(2) ensures that any deficiencies in the software product, process, or their associated standards are
swiftly brought to management’s attention. Software configuration management refers to a process
by which changes to software products are controlled. It includes identification of products to be
controlled, accounting for changes to these products, and reporting on the products’ status.

Page 3                                                                     GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
According to NWS officials, they plan to improve the software development
processes for WFO-Advanced and other government-developed software
using NWS headquarters, NOAA Systems Acquisitions, and contractor staff.
Specifically, NWS plans to (1) more fully document the lab’s design and
software code, (2) design the integration of government-furnished
software and contractor-developed software, (3) fully test all government
software before it is turned over to the contractor, and (4) strengthen
quality assurance and configuration management. To help accomplish this,
NWS has established several specific contract task orders.

NWS  officials acknowledge that getting WFO-Advanced ready for the
contractor is a large task because it constitutes such a significant portion
of the AWIPS software. In addition, officials said that there is no room for
schedule delays due to unforeseen problems. They feel confident,
however, that they can meet this challenge because of the steps I have just
described, and because they have experience in turning government
software over to the contractor. For example, NWS’ Office of Hydrology
provided hydrometeorological software to the contractor for the AWIPS
“build 1,” which was successfully tested last summer. In addition, NWS
officials said that they are applying to AWIPS lessons learned from their
configuration management experiences in the radar and observing systems
development projects.

According to NWS and NOAA officials, one of the critical success factors for
the AWIPS development is preserving the knowledge investment made in
contractor staff; internally, however, such resources have been dwindling,
a problem exacerbated by downsizing. These officials noted that one
result of this is that functions that should be performed by government
personnel have had to be contracted outside the agency, such as
configuration management.

Mr. Chairman, I have been discussing risks that we see in the development
process, primarily in ensuring that government-developed software code is
stable and reliable. Right now they are just that—risks. But they are
significant risks, ones that must be managed lest they become actual
problems. NWS has put into place appropriate plans and procedures to
mitigate these risks. This is an important step. Even more critical,
however, is implementation. For this reason, these issues are more
managerial than technical. Risks are inherent in every large systems
development effort; unfortunately, all too frequently they become reality.
Whether or not this happens is often related to the quality of program
management. Only by ensuring, through continual monitoring, that

Page 4                                                  GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
                   risk-mitigation plans are effectively implemented can management hope to
                   prevent these risks from becoming real problems. Development plans
                   usually include cost and schedule padding to help absorb the effects of
                   problems that arise. AWIPS has not been safe from development setbacks
                   over the years; its cost has increased and its schedule has lengthened.
                   Further, according to the program manager, while the current $550 million
                   estimated cost at completion is a conservative one, there is no more cost
                   or schedule padding available.

                   Given the magnitude of the task at hand—integrating software from
                   several separate entities into a complex meteorological system that will
                   enable forecasters to capitalize on the $4 billion worth of improvements
                   already made by NWS—and that the Department of Commerce has
                   committed to a $550-million funding cap, we believe it is essential that top
                   managers both at NOAA and Commerce understand and acknowledge the
                   importance of fully implementing their risk-mitigation plans, and that
                   should these risks turn into real problems, more time and money will
                   inevitably be required. Managers will need to deal with unexpected
                   problems in an efficient, timely, and cost-effective manner, while at the
                   same time ensuring that NWS operations—providing forecasts to the public
                   and supporting the systems in place for use by forecasters—are not
                   adversely affected.

                   Mr. Chairman, you also asked that we discuss NOAA’s acquisition strategy
Geostationary      for its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system.
Operational        This system is an integral part of weather forecasting, as GOES satellites are
Environmental      uniquely positioned to observe the development of severe weather—such
                   as hurricanes and thunderstorms—and provide information allowing
Satellite (GOES)   forecasters to issue accurate and timely warnings. GOES satellites in the
                   current series will begin to reach the end of their useful lives about 2002;
                   consequently, NOAA is now in the process of planning the procurement of
                   replacements for these satellites, which will need to be procured quickly
                   to prevent a gap in coverage as the current series runs out. These satellites
                   will be very similar to the current series.

                   However, decisions concerning what type of satellite system to build for
                   the longer term are not simple. Given that NOAA’s budget is expected to be
                   constrained in the coming years, it is important that plans for the next
                   generation of satellites ensure that they will be economical as well as
                   effective. As requested by this Subcommittee, we recently completed a

                   Page 5                                                   GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
review assessing NOAA’s planning for the GOES system; our report is being
released today, and copies are available at this hearing.4

In brief, we found NOAA’s approach for the near term
reasonable—competitively procuring two to four spacecraft that will carry
the same meteorological instruments as the current series, with modest
technical improvements. During our review, however, we noted the
difficulty NOAA has in predicting exactly when replacement satellites will
be needed, and how many should be bought. To help improve its planning
process, we are recommending that NOAA clarify its policies for replacing
partially failed satellites and backing up planned launches.

As part of our review of the GOES program, we were asked to look at
whether opportunities exist for improving the system and reducing
long-term costs. We believe that changing the GOES system design offers a
number of potential benefits. A new design might better meet the evolving
needs of forecasters and improve performance as well as reduce costs. A
number of new approaches and technologies for geostationary
meteorology have been suggested in recent years, by government,
academic, and industry experts; many include technological options
unavailable when the present generation of satellites was designed.

For example, new designs for the meteorological instruments that fly on
GOES could take advantage of advanced sensor technology, which would
allow them to collect data much more efficiently than do current
instruments. Further, instead of using two large multipurpose satellites,
the GOES system could be made up of smaller satellites focused on specific
tasks. While potential drawbacks to this approach would need careful
engineering assessment, the basic concept could lead to a more robust and
flexible satellite system that better meets user needs at a lower cost.

These and other options need careful engineering analysis before an
informed decision can be made about the future of the GOES program. Our
greatest concern in this area is with NOAA’s delay in conducting this
analysis and developing specific plans for the follow-up series. During our
review, the agency was planning to begin its GOES follow-up program in
fiscal year 2000, and we questioned the decision not to begin planning
earlier. Now, with the release of the President’s budget request for fiscal
year 1998, the start date has been delayed even further—the agency does
not anticipate beginning a follow-up program until 2003 at the earliest.

 Weather Satellites: Planning for the Geostationary Satellite Program Needs More Attention
(GAO/AIMD-97-37, March 13, 1997).

Page 6                                                                    GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
                    Given that it generally takes 10 years to develop a new satellite design,
                    deferring the start of the program until 2003 likely means that NOAA will
                    have to continue to rely on the current, early-1980s design well into the
                    second decade of the next century.

                    GOES program officials within NOAA have anticipated this problem and, for
                    several years, proposed funding to begin a planning process. However,
                    NOAA and Commerce officials have repeatedly denied this request in favor
                    of other programs. The danger NOAA faces—that a gap in coverage could
                    develop beginning in 2002—has arisen because planning for the
                    next-generation satellite series has been repeatedly deferred since 1989.

                    Mr. Chairman, given that options may exist for NOAA to develop a
                    significantly improved follow-up GOES system, the Congress may wish to
                    closely examine the costs and benefits of different approaches for the
                    timing, funding, and scope of the follow-up program. Further, the
                    Congress may also wish to examine the National Aeronautics and Space
                    Administration’s (NASA) potential role in working with NOAA to support the
                    needs of geostationary weather satellites within NASA’s advanced
                    spacecraft technology programs.

                    We recommend that the NOAA Administrator ensure that the National
                    Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) clarify
                    certain of its GOES planning policies. Further, we recommend that the
                    Administrator prepare a formal analysis of the costs and benefits of
                    several alternatives for the timing, funding, and scope of the follow-up
                    program. This analysis should be provided to the Congress for its use in
                    considering options for the future of the GOES program.

                    In a report issued last year, we addressed issues involving the NOAA
NOAA Commissioned   Commissioned Corps, focusing on the extent to which it meets
Corps               Department of Defense criteria for performing military functions and
                    receiving military pay and allowances.5 In that report, we also estimated
                    potential government savings if Corps officers were converted to civilian

                    The NOAA Corps is made up of officers who operate and manage NOAA’s
                    research and survey ships. These vessels collect data needed to support
                    fishery management plans, oceanographic and climate research, and

                     Federal Personnel: Issues on the Need for NOAA’s Commissioned Corps (GAO/GGD-97-10, Oct. 31,

                    Page 7                                                                GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
hydrographic surveys, which chart bodies of water. Officers also fly and
manage aircraft used by NOAA to penetrate hurricanes for research
purposes and to carry out surveys for forecasting floods and mapping
changing U.S. shorelines.

We reported that generally, the NOAA Corps does not meet criteria for
receiving military compensation cited in a Defense report.6 Further, NOAA
Corps officers are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice,
which governs how military personnel are managed. We estimated that if
Corps members were converted to civilian status, the government would
realize an annual net savings of some $660,000. This figure would decrease
if the Corps were to become smaller than it was during our review. We
understand that reductions may have in fact occurred. The actual savings
also depends on a variety of factors concerning how the transition would
be made and the period of time over which it would take place.

Corps officers’ entitlement to military rank and military-like
compensation—including retirement eligibility at any age after 20 years of
service—was an outgrowth of their temporary assignments to the armed
forces during the first and second world wars. The Corps has not been
incorporated into the armed services since World War II and, according to
Defense officials, war-mobilization plans envision no role for them in the

Corps officials cited the fact that their officers can be assigned with little
notice to any location and function where their services are needed, often
in hazardous conditions. Yet some civilian employees are often similarly
called upon to respond quickly to disasters and other emergencies,
including those of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National
Transportation Safety Board, and Federal Emergency Management
Agency. Further, both EPA and the Navy use ships operated by civilians to
conduct oceanic research. NOAA ships themselves have, on occasion, been
operated by civilians —an approach NOAA officials called successful.

If a decision to convert Corps officers to civilian status were made, a
transition plan would need to consider, along with the time period to
accomplish the change, (1) retirement benefits/credits to be allotted to
officers who are converted to civilian capacity; (2) resources needed for
potential recruitment, training, and retention of civilian employees who
might replace Corps members choosing to leave federal service; (3) what

 The Fifth Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, Department of Defense, January 1984.

Page 8                                                                  GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
additional resources, if any, NOAA would require to administer the civilian
workforce; and other specific operational elements.

This concludes my statement, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy to respond
to any questions you or other members of the Committee might have at
this time.

Page 9                                                  GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
Page 10   GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
Related GAO Products

              Weather Satellites: Planning for the Geostationary Satellite Program Needs
              More Attention (GAO/AIMD-97-37, March 13, 1997).

              High-Risk Series: Information Management and Technology (GAO/HR-97-9,
              February 1997).

              Federal Personnel: Issues on the Need for NOAA’s Commissioned Corps
              (GAO/GGD-97-10, Oct. 31, 1996).

              NOAA   Satellites (GAO/AIMD-96-141R, Sept. 13, 1996).

              Weather Forecasting: Recommendations to Address New Weather
              Processing Systems Development Risks (GAO/AIMD-96-74, May 13, 1996).

              Weather Forecasting: NWS Has Not Demonstrated that New Processing
              System Will Improve Mission Effectiveness (GAO/AIMD-96-29, Feb. 29, 1996).

              Weather Forecasting: New Processing System Faces Uncertainties and
              Risks (GAO/T-AIMD-96-47, Feb. 29, 1996).

              Weather Forecasting: Radars Far Superior to Predecessors, but Location
              and Availability Questions Remain (GAO/T-AIMD-96-2, Oct. 17, 1995).

              Weather Service Modernization Staffing (GAO/AIMD-95-239R, Sept. 26, 1995).

              Weather Forecasting: Radar Availability Requirements Not Being Met
              (GAO/AIMD-95-132, May 31, 1995).

              Weather Forecasting: Unmet Needs and Unknown Costs Warrant
              Reassessment of Observing System Plans (GAO/AIMD-95-81, April 21, 1995).

              Weather Service Modernization Questions (GAO/AIMD-95-106R, March 10,

              Weather Service Modernization: Despite Progress, Significant Problems
              and Risks Remain (GAO/T-AIMD-95-87, Feb. 21, 1995).

              Meteorological Satellites (GAO/NSIAD-95-87R, Feb. 6, 1995).

              Weather Forecasting: Improvements Needed in Laboratory Software
              Development Processes (GAO/AIMD-95-24, Dec. 14, 1994).

              Page 11                                                   GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
           Related GAO Products

           Weather Forecasting: Systems Architecture Needed for National Weather
           Service Modernization (GAO/AIMD-94-28, March 11, 1994).

           Weather Forecasting: Important Issues on Automated Weather Processing
           System Need Resolution (GAO/IMTEC-93-12BR, Jan. 6, 1993).

           Weather Satellites: Action Needed To Resolve Status of the U.S.
           Geostationary Satellite Program (GAO/NSIAD-91-252, July 24, 1991).

           Weather Satellites: Cost Growth and Development Delays Jeopardize U.S.
           Forecasting Ability (GAO/NSIAD-89-169, June 30, 1989).

(511418)   Page 12                                                  GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-97-63
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