By Nathan Strout
One year ago on the night of Jan. 7, 2020, Americans were shocked to learn that Iran had launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
Iran called it “fierce revenge” for the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. As reports of the attack inundated the airwaves, viewers were left wondering what had happened — and perhaps most importantly — were there casualties?
The barrage damaged runways, tents, equipment and a helicopter, and the Pentagon acknowledged that 110 people needed to be treated later for traumatic brain injuries. No one was killed.
The remaining U.S. and coalition forces that had not been evacuated were able to take cover in bunkers, thanks to what President Donald Trump referred to at the time as an “early warning system.”
The public now knows what many in the national security community suspected: That early warning system was the Space Based Infrared System, a constellation of satellites that surveils Earth’s surface 24/7 to detect missiles. Rarely has the Defense Department offered such a high profile example of the system’s capabilities and its direct impact on the American war fighter.
This is the story of the people — the men and women of the Space Force’s 2nd Space Warning Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado — who operated SBIRS that night and provided that critical early warning to seek cover. In an exclusive interview, they brought C4ISRNET behind the scenes of one of the most high profile missile attacks on American forces in recent history. In many ways, it was a night like any other, with the squadron reading the data generated by the satellites and reporting it out. But with the lives of their fellow service members on the line, the stakes had rarely felt higher.
“This is what they’re trained to do day in and day out,” said Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Brandon Davenport. “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.”
U.S.-Iranian tensions mount
The role for 2nd SWS began in October, when the squadron took over operations of the nation’s premier missile warning satellites.
“That’s when we actually switched over command and control between the 11th Space Warning Squadron and the 2nd Space Warning Squadron. At the time, 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,” Davenport said.
Recent escalations between the U.S. and Iranian-backed forces in the region “warranted extra supervision from our crews at Buckley,” he said.
Tensions rose further after the U.S. assassinated Soleimani in a Jan. 3 drone strike.
The name was familiar to Davenport, who had spent a year overseas as a space cell chief starting in 2012. He knew the action would elicit a response from Iran, even if it wasn’t apparent how that response would manifest.
“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,” said Davenport.
“I happened to actually be on when Soleimani was killed,” said Space Operations Center Commander Capt. Tasia Reed, a mission management operator with 2nd SWS at the time.
It was a slow night, she recalled. That is, until it flashed across a news screen that Soleimani had been killed.
“Col. Davenport comes on to the floor and he kind of talks us through, you know, ‘Oh, well, we just killed one of their generals, the No. 2 guy in the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, all right, cool.’ My Spidey-senses kind of went off and I was like, ‘All right, well, looks like we’re going to have to start doing some planning.’”
Coordinating with the intelligence community and colleagues within the Department of Defense, Reed and the other mission management operators put together a collection strategy for SBIRS, ensuring that the satellites’ sensors were best positioned for optimal coverage of the region.
“We have an ability to sort of tailor how we collect things, and I just remember going through that mission planning and trying to come up with that collection strategy,” said 1st Lt. Christianna Castaneda, a fellow mission management operator. “In discussions with other agencies and our intelligence analysts, we were able to come up with a strategy to collect on whatever the potential retaliation could have been.”
Built by Lockheed Martin with infrared sensors from Northrop Grumman, the SBIRS constellation is made up of six satellites: four geosynchronous (GEO) satellites and two hosted payloads hitching rides in highly elliptical orbits (HEO) to provide polar coverage. By detecting infrared light created during the launch of ballistic missiles, the sensors allow the operators to see every missile launch taking place around the world. The Government Accountability Office said in 2019 the system cost roughly $20 billion.
“This system is a passive collector,” Davenport said. “All it really does is collect IR photons. That’s what it was built to do. … Then our mission team interprets those IR collects.”
Specifically, the GEO satellites include two sensors: a scanner and a starer. The scanning sensor continuously monitors the Earth, while the more accurate starer can provide advanced coverage for theater missions. Each HEO payload includes a scanning sensor. Without actually moving the satellites, Casteneda, Reed and other mission management operators arrange the starer payloads to provide optimal coverage of the region.
With the collection strategy in place, all the 2nd SWS team could do was watch and wait.
Again… Trump ahead of the curve, doing what is best for the nation.