When Iran televised its ballistic missiles being spectacularly launched at US troop military bases in Iraq, the news flashed up on smartphones, news websites and TVs in offices everywhere. The ballistic missiles, which are extremely accurate, were aimed at two military bases. No information was at hand of casualties.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which Qassem Soleimania commanded, said the missile attacks were “total revenge” for their beloved leader’s killing. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, described the bombings as “a slap in the face” for the US.
But within minutes US President Donald Tweet tweeted “all is good!” and indicated he was going to bed but would make a statement the next morning.
Trump knew that the 16 ballistic missiles fired from three sites had not hit their intended targets – the US and Coalition troops had moved out because they had been warned hours in advance. Despite the rhetoric from Iran, incensed at the assassination of Iranian military commander Soleimania, the mastermind behind the killing or wounding of thousands of Americans over many years, Trump knew their attack had been rendered futile.
The US has four missile-tracking infrared satellites in geosynchronous orbits – which means the satellites never change position relative to the surface of the Earth – and two additional infrared missile-detection systems on classified National Reconnaissance Office satellites. In the case of the Iranian attack, one or more of these satellites gave the military a heads-up that the ballistic missiles had been fired.
A senior US defence official said the advance warnings included “layers of surveillance” of satellites that can detect “the second the missile motor sparks”. The flying time between Iran and Erbil military base in is between three and five minutes.
In addition, US officials said they could see Iranian ballistic missiles movement thanks to US Air Force early warning aircraft, flying radar, circling high overhead in the region.
Once a satellite detects a possible missile launch, it triggers an alert at the Missile Warning Centre, run by the US Space Command at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado. Then military analysts seek to confirm that the detection is legitimate and process the trajectory of the missile to determine where it will strike.
With this information in hand, Space Command can determine whether a missile intercept is possible or necessary. How long the whole process takes, from detection to direction, depends on the launch location and target. In the case of the Iranian attack, US officials say communication and signals intelligence gave troops hours of advance warning of an impending attack.
A senior US official told Fox News that Iranian officials warned Iraq about the pending missile attack because Iran did not want to kill Iraqi forces. Some Iraqi forces then warned their US counterparts, however, the US had known “for hours” that Iran was planning to launch the attack.
“That warning was not a surprise to us,” the US official said. “We already knew it was coming.”
No attempt was made to intercept the ballistic missiles, which had 1,000 to 2,000-pound warheads on their tips. The US and Coalition troops simply got out of the way.
Defence Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the 16 Iranian ballistic missiles were fired to kill and maim US troops.
“I believe based on what I saw and what I know is that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft and to kill personnel,” Milley said at a press conference.
US military officials were warned about Iran’s pending ballistic missile strike “when the air defence systems went active,” he said.
Milley added that “a little bit of early warning” and “normal defensive procedures” at Al-Assad Air Base prevented US troops from being killed.
“In my estimation from what I know now, I think it has more to do with the defensive techniques that our forces used as opposed to intent,” Milley said, adding that US forces “took sufficient defensive measures.”
Eleven of those missiles hit Al-Assad and one hit Erbil military bases. Four of the missiles malfunctioned and failed to hit their target.
The damage at the bases was largely contained to “tentage, taxiways, the parking lot, damaged helicopter, things like that, nothing I would describe as major,” Esper said.
Trump said earlier in a 9-minute address to the nation that he would be imposing more economic and financial sanctions on Iran in response to the attack.
Solemani was responsible for the “absolute worst atrocities, trained terrorist armies, fuelled bloody civil wars across the region,” Trump said.
“By removing him, we’ve sent a powerful message to terrorists, ‘If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people,'” he said, adding that sanctions on Iran will remain and more will be added.
“To Iran, we want you to have a future, a great future, one you deserve, prosperity at home and harmony with nations of the world. The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
He added that Iran was “standing down”, presumably withdrawing its missile forces.
As of December, there were about 6,000 US troops deployed in Iraq.