Colorado airmen and soldiers kept America out of a wider war with Iran on Tuesday night by raising the warning that spared lives on the ground during a missile attack.
Two retired generals tell The Gazette that rapid work by troops monitoring satellites and radar here allowed their comrades at a pair of Iraq bases to seek shelter while missiles were in flight.
Because the Iranian volley resulted in no casualties, a threatened major U.S. counterattack was rendered unnecessary.
“We have become much better at shortening that timeline between detection, tracking, warning and defense,” said retired Brig. Gen. Marty France, whose last military job included overseeing space and satellite programs at the Air Force Academy.
Time is precious in an attack like the one launched by Iran with missiles that travel more than a mile per second. From launch to impact, troops here had 15 minutes or less to analyze data, warn leaders and get troops in Iraq into bunkers.
“It helps reduce casualties and helps reduce escalation,” said retired Gen. Lance Lord, who retired as the Air Force’s top space officer.
The military has said troops on the ground were warned of the missiles but has offered few further details of the incident that saw 15 Iranian missiles target two Iraqi bases that housed U.S. troops, referring questions to the Pentagon.
“I prefer to not give out specific details on our early warning systems and how we know that, so we’ll just leave that to be ambiguous,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said last week.
U.S. Space Command issued a statement confirming it “operates a multitude of systems that contribute to worldwide missile warning and detection capabilities to protect the nation, our deployed personnel, and our U.S. allied forces around the world.”
The command said it won’t release details on the Iranian attack.
But early warning has been a key mission in Colorado Springs since the early days of the Cold War, when local troops kept watch for bombers and missiles from the Soviet Union.
Now, detecting missiles and raising the alert is a team effort in Colorado with units at five bases joining in. Missile warning units here include the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, the 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, the Army’s 1st Space Brigade at Fort Carson and U.S. Space Command, which has many of its operations at Schriever Air Force Base and runs the missile warning center in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain.
It’s a mission that starts more than 22,000 miles above Earth, with satellites in geosynchronous orbit that stare at the planet with an unblinking infrared eye.
The Defense Support Program and Space-based Infrared System satellites scan the planet looking for heat. Missiles are comparatively small, but the heat of their rockets is easy to see, France said.
Airmen on the ground get constant updates from the satellites to spot rocket blasts.
“They’re going to see hot spots and they are going to see moving hotspots,” France said. “They can geolocate those hot spots and figure out where they are going.”
Most rocket launches are benign, taking the form of space launches and military rocket tests, Lord said. Airmen must interpret launches to determine which ones are actual threats.
Lord said a key focus of space units in Colorado Springs has been training troops for the wartime uses of satellites.
“We have come a long way to develop the operational art,” Lord said.
Now, airmen have become so advanced that they can often identify the type of missile in flight by its heat signature alone.
While satellites can spot a launch, as soon as the rocket engine burns out, they are blind again.That’s where radar comes in. Peterson’s 21st Space Wing has some of the world’s biggest radar arrays place at key locations around the planet.
It’s a system that’s designed to defend North America, with much of the system or radars pointing north along the route most likely in a Russian attack.
To fill in the gaps, the Army’s 1st Space Brigade heads overseas.
The brigade has portable radar systems that are used for missile tracking in combat zones.
The Fort Carson unit rotates soldiers through the Persian Gulf to man a radar array that’s the size of the trailer on an 18-wheeler. The Navy can also join the fray with powerful radar sets aboard destroyers and cruisers at sea.
All the information, though, is useless without humans to interpret what the electronic eyes have seen.
“You are using a combination of all of your assets whether its signals or imagery or infrared,” France said. “You get a multidomain picture of what is happening.”
And that picture is developed in Colorado’s most famous man-made cave. The bunker that sits 2,000 feet below the granite summit of Cheyenne Mountain holds U.S. Space Command’s missile warning center.
Troops there pull together data from sensors, integrate intelligence reports and try to figure out what every launch means.
On Tuesday, they saw a barrage. News reports say Iran launched as many as 16 Shahab-2 missiles, a short-range ballistic missile modeled after the Russian Scud.
And the troops in Colorado Springs have plenty of experience tracking Scuds. The 1991 Persian Gulf War brought the first use of America’s missile warning sensors to spot launches in the Persian Gulf. Systems built for spotting Russian nuclear missiles were repurposed to hunt for the Scuds that Saddam Hussein used against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Gulf War made American Patriot missile crews heroes for shooting down more than half of the more than 80 missiles fired from Iraq during the war.
But one Scud struck an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 soldiers and putting 110 in the hospital.
In Colorado Springs, military brass called for upgrading missile warning capabilities to give speedier and more accurate reports.
Moving quickly to warn troops is key when it comes to short-range missiles like the Shahab-2, which accelerates to Mach 5 on its short flight.
“It’s literally just a few minutes,” France said.
But getting better warning satellites meant inventing more sensitive cameras and host of related technologies. And that gets expensive. At one point, that cost to build the Space-based Infrared Satellite System was pegged at $10.4 billion, and congressional committees freaked out.
“I have SBIRS scars all over my body,” joked Lord, referring to the satellite system’s acronym and the battles he fought to control its costs and calm down lawmakers who wanted it canceled.
The satellite program faced long years of delay but is now bearing fruit. The most recent spacecraft in that constellation launched in 2018 and two more are under construction.
The manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin, boasts that the new satellites “detect missile launches, support ballistic missile defense, expand technical intelligence gathering and bolster situational awareness on the battlefield.”
Lord said the new satellites have lived up to their mammoth price tag.
“The sensor capability now is much more refined,” he said.
But better tools required a new generation of better-trained troops.
“It takes a highly skilled workforce when the operation is going on,” France said. “A lot of that skill is derived from war games and exercises.”
Just as troops fight mock battles on Fort Carson before they head to war overseas, the Pikes Peak region’s space troops drill, too.
Crews undergo daily drills, and last fall they fought through the Schriever War Game, which included 350 experts.
All that training France said, creates airmen who know what to do when real missiles fly.
On Tuesday, France said, those quick reactions saved Americans and Iranians, who would have faced retaliatory watch if U.S. troops were killed.
Troops in Colorado got a warning to U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops in the Middle East. The warning was quickly transmitted to Iraq, and troops took cover.
France said that warning will keep giving benefits for years to come.
“We can save lives and avert a larger conflict,” France said. “And, hopefully, we can better understand our enemy’s capability and intent.”
Lord remembers hiding under an elementary school desk in the 1950s before America developed its ability to spot launches from space.
“When I young, it was duck and cover,” he said. “Warning has come a long way.”
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx