The newly-created U.S. Space Force played a major role in saving the lives of American and coalition forces at a base in Iraq through early detection of incoming Iranian ballistic missiles last year, said a report published Thursday.
C4ISRNet reported that the Iranian attack in January 2020, which came in response to President Donald Trump’s targeting of Revolutionary Guards commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani days earlier, was detected by the Space-Based Infrared System, “a constellation of satellites that surveils Earth’s surface 24/7 to detect missiles.”
Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at the base, and while 110 personnel were subsequently treated for traumatic brain injuries, no one was killed.
Early detection of the launch by elements of the Space Force’s 2nd Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado allowed for the evacuation of some military personnel. And those who were unable to evacuate were able to move into bunkers “thanks to what [Trump] referred to at the time as an ‘early warning system,’” C4ISRNet reported.
“Rarely has the Defense Department offered such a high-profile example of the system’s capabilities and its direct impact on the American warfighter,” the outlet added.
In an interview, Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Brandon Davenport credited the training his personnel received prior to their posting at Buckley but said the fact that it was a real-world scenario involving American forces, added an additional “surreal” element.
“This is what they’re trained to do day in and day out,” he told C4ISRNet. “That part felt very normal. That’s why it felt surreal because it felt like any other day other than the fact that we all knew there were Americans and allies on the other end of that missile.”
The Space Force was created when President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act — the Pentagon’s annual budget — in December 2019, becoming the first new U.S. military branch (and the sixth, overall) in seven decades. U.S. Space Force joins the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, the latter of which is considered a military branch though it has a federal law-enforcement role and, thus, falls under the Department of Homeland Security.
Space Operations Command (SpOC), the branch’s first field command, was stood-up at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado in October. Earlier, a SpOC was established at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; it was subsequently redesigned, SpOC West.
There are three major field-commands that fall under the Space Force. The 2nd SWS was also stood-up in October, assuming command and control of the nation’s top-line missile-warning satellites.
The Lockheed-Martin-built constellation consists of six satellites equipped with infrared sensors developed by Northrop Grumman. The satellites are capable of detecting infrared light from missile launches around the world.
At the time he was given command of his unit, Davenport said he briefed his personnel that Iran was a principal threat.
“That’s when we actually switched over command and control between the 11th Space Warning Squadron and the 2nd Space Warning Squadron,” he told C4ISRNet.
“We had a construct where each squadron would operate the system for about four months and then swap. And as 2nd SWS took the chair, I remember giving a brief … And I’ll tell you right out of the gate, our focus was Iran as No. 1,” he added.
After Soleimani was taken out by a missile strike, Davenport said he was certain Iran would respond in some way, though he wasn’t sure what form that response would take.
“The second that he was killed, within that frame of time that he was killed, we were talking through, you know, what could be the responses that Iran would take. I think in a way, our mind was on this threat from the get-go,” he said.
The night of the launch — Jan. 7, 2020 — involving more than a dozen missiles, 2nd SWS personnel on duty immediately detected it, determined what class of missiles was involved, and where they were headed.
“With the indications that we received, we knew immediately that this was the threat that we were potentially waiting for,” Mission Commander 1st Lt. Mariano Long told C4ISRNet.
“That night it came out of nowhere. It was a lot of missiles quick, and we could see where they were trying to impact,” Long added. “We knew, literally, people that were serving alongside us, were being targeted.”
Space Force officials declined to say how long it took from the time the missiles were detected, to warn the U.S. personnel who were being targeted, due to the sensitive nature of the intelligence.
“The enemy knows we depend on space, and so they’re looking for ways to take it from us,” Maj. Gen. Deanna Burt, commander of the Combined Force Space Component Command, told the outlet.
That said, Long noted, “Our time was pretty quick.”
“And this allowed for users downrange to kind of take cover and get in the bunks and potentially saved lives,” Long added.
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