The death of a 25-year-old airman assigned to Air Force Space Command in Syria this week is tragic, but his presence downrange in support of the fight against the Islamic State is illustrative of the quiet role U.S. space forces play in ongoing fights, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said.
Staff Sgt. Austin Bieren, of Umatilla, Oregon, died March 28, reportedly of natural causes. A member of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, he had been deployed to northern Syria.
Speaking at the Military Reporters and Editors Association conference near Washington, D.C., Air Force Gen. John Hyten said it is far from unusual for space troops to be present in hot combat zones.
"It's one of the interesting things that's very misunderstood in our country, is that if you're conducting a military operation anywhere in the world -- anywhere in the world, space is fundamental to the execution of that military operation," he said. "I was the director of Space Forces [for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom] in 2006 in Central Command. And when I was director of Space Forces, at that time, guess where I was -- I was in Iraq, Afghanistan, all through the Middle East."
The little-reported activities of Space Command and service-specific counterparts focus on satellite communications and activities, and information of tactical value to troops downrange, including satellite-based intelligence, weather and missile-warning systems.
Hyten said during the fighting in Fallujah in the early 2000s, there was a joint space support team, commanded by a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and staffed with airmen and soldiers, who brought space capabilities to bear for Marines in combat.
"I can't tell you what the airman specifically was doing in Syria, but anywhere we have military operations, you will find space people deployed," Hyten said. "In the Army divisions, in the Army [brigade combat teams], in any ground maneuver unit, you'll find space people."
The perceived significance of space capability to the fight is underscored by the relative paucity of American military personnel in Syria.
There's a Pentagon-imposed troop cap of just over 500 troops, although the number of personnel in country is actually roughly 900, due to the authority of commanders on the ground to make temporary exceptions. Other personnel on the ground include advise-and-assist forces and special operations troops, among others.
"It's tragic that we lost that young man in kind of a strange way for a 25-year-old, but nonetheless space is embedded in everything we do," Hyten said. "So anywhere you have American military people, you're going to have space."
-- Editor's Note: Previous version incorrectly referred to "Space Command" as "U.S. Space Command."