U.S. early warning satellites helped avert casualties from Iran’s missile attack

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Trump: “No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well."

WASHINGTON — In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, President Trump said no Americans were killed or harmed by Iranian ballistic missiles fired Jan. 7 at two U.S. military installations in Iraq.

Trump said the military’s “early warning system” was one of the reasons casualties were averted.

Iran fired 16 short-range ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. military and coalition personnel, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at the Pentagon Jan. 8.

The attack was in retaliation following the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani.

“No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well,” Trump said at the White House.

Following the president’s comments Jan. 8, a defense official said in a statement: “U.S. early warning systems detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance, providing U.S. and coalition forces adequate time to take appropriate force protection measures.”

The extent of the damage caused by the missile attack is still being analyzed, Esper said, but he noted that the warning system was activated and performed as intended.

The U.S. military is alerted of missile launches by a constellation of geosynchronous and polar orbit satellites equipped with scanning and staring infrared sensors. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) includes four geostationary satellites, two hosted payloads on satellites in highly elliptical orbit, two replenishment satellites and sensors, and fixed and mobile ground stations.

The SBIRS satellites are made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the payloads by Northrop Grumman Corp.

The U.S. Air Force launched four SBIRS satellites in 2011, 2013, 2017 and 2018. Two more are scheduled to be deployed in 2020 and 2021. Each satellite is estimated to cost $1.7 billion.

The data from the satellites goes to a mission control station operated by the 460th Space Wing located at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado. The wing is now part of the U.S. Space Force.

Neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. Air Force would comment specifically on the use of SBIRS satellites to detect the Iranian missile attack. Although the existence of the satellites is not a secret, the way they are used and the techniques for passing information are classified, said retired U.S. Air Force three-star general David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies.

Deptula planned air operations in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War. Back then, the military relied on an older constellation of early warning satellites known as the Defense Support Program (DSP).

“I’m having flashbacks to 1991 when DSP warned us Iraq was launching missiles against our location in Riyadh [Saudi Arabia’s capital],” Deptula told SpaceNews Jan. 8. “Around the corner from my desk was a terminal manned by a space warning officer that would give us a heads-up as soon as something was detected,” he said.

What happened this week shows that missile warning satellites provide an important capability, said Deptula, and it’s an “example of the U.S. Space Force performing a critical mission as a new service.”

When Trump spoke at the White House Jan. 8, the commander of the U.S. Space Force, Gen. John Raymond, stood nearby, alongside the other chiefs of the military services, as the newest member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.