The newly created U.S. combatant command focused on space has passed its initial combat test, according to officials and experts. Early warning capabilities belonging to the command helped detect recent Iranian ballistic missile launches at U.S. bases in Iraq, contributing to an early warning advantage for troops on the ground.
In a statement to Military.com earlier this week, U.S. Space Command officials pointed to the vast array of interlocking space and ground sensors, mostly inherited from the Air Force, that are now in the command's domain. The capabilities serve to detect and track ballistic missiles worldwide. Officials did not, however, specify which particular system first picked up the launches.
But U.S. official speaking on background and several experts said the first signs of a launch almost certainly came from the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a capability generated by four satellites operated by the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado.
In the SPACECOM statement, a spokesperson for the new command described in general terms the "multitude of systems that contribute to worldwide missile warning and detection capabilities to protect the nation" and deployed troops.
In its mission, the new command coordinated with the Missile Warning Center, the Joint Overhead Persistent Infrared Planning Center, the Combined Space Operations Center, and the Joint Tactical Ground Stations deployed by the Army to provide worldwide "theater ballistic missile warning and enhanced infrared coverage," the spokesperson said.
On Jan. 9, the day after Iran launched 16 ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing U.S. and Iraqi troops, President Donald Trump said simply that U.S. troops were protected by "an early warning system that worked very well."
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, said the missile launches were a "slap in the face" to the U.S. in response to the Jan. 5 drone strike at Baghdad's International Airport that killed Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said that Iran fired a total of 16 missiles, of which four failed in flight. Eleven hit Al Asad airbase in Iraq's Anbar province, and one hit an open field in Erbil in the northern autonomous Kurdish region.
The initial reports were that there were no deaths or injuries to U.S. troops, but DoD announced Friday that 11 troops at Al Asad had suffered concussive effects from the missile blasts and were evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany, as a precautionary move to check for possible traumatic brain injury. All were expected to return to duty, DoD said.
Although SPACECOM would not name the system that first detected the launches, the initial warning "absolutely" came from the 460th Space Wing, which "queued up that information" for other systems to track the path of the missiles, said Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
"Any ballistic missile of any range will have a heat signature that's going to be picked up by multiple infrared systems" in the U.S. inventory, said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The capability is certainly there" for SBIRS to detect the launches, he added. "That's why we have it in the first place."
While SBIRS would have picked up the ballistic missile launches, the system would have been less likely to have detected the surface-to-air missile launch that brought down Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752, said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Iran has called the shootdown, which resulted in the deaths of all 176 aboard, a tragic mistake.
The short flight path and attitude of the surface-to-air missile would have made it less visible to the U.S. satellite configurations, Mount said.
Officials with the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base referred questions on the missile launches to SPACECOM. But the wing's website said the 460th "provides combatant commanders with worldwide missile warning and global situational awareness."
The wing operates the Defense Support Program, dating back to the 1970s, in addition to SBIRS, the website said.
Once the missiles were launched, there was little U.S. troops could do but get to bunkers and wait out the attack.
On the night of the attacks, Defense Secretary Esper said in a gaggle with Pentagon reporters that "we had a heads-up in the sense that our warning systems and all those things were activated and watching, and were able to give a sufficient warning."
He declined comment on whether the U.S. had any capabilities in the region that may have intercepted the missiles, but U.S. officials said there are no Army Patriot or THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile systems in Iraq.
Analysts Karako and Ellison also said there are no Patriot or THAAD systems in Iraq, and attributed the absence of the systems to the high demand for their presence elsewhere.
"They can't be everywhere at once," Karako said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.