Flashback: Iran Brought Us to the Brink of War with Missile Attack, But Trump's Military Already Had Them Beat


The comic potential of Space Force among liberals apparently didn’t just end with the mostly forgettable Netflix series. Less than two weeks into the job, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tried to make a funny when asked about what the nascent Biden administration would do with the newest branch of the military.

“Wow, Space Force,” a smiling Psaki said during the Feb. 2 media briefing. “It’s the plane of today!”

This odd comment, according to Politico, may have had something to do with an earlier question about the paint scheme of Air Force One. It was still dismissive and awkward — and Psaki tried to slink away from the thudding joke by saying “[i]t is an interesting question. I am happy to check with our Space Force point of contact. I’m not sure who that is. I will find out and see if we have any update on that.”

In short, Psaki had no idea whom to contact about Space Force and considers it a figure of fun. She’s probably not alone.

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A day later, Psaki said that Space Force had the “full support” of Joe Biden and wouldn’t be eliminated, according to the Military Times.

“We’re not revisiting the decision,” Psaki said.

That was a wise move, given that “the plane of today” could have already saved us from going to war with Iran. Meanwhile, her new boss is potentially risking war with that same Iran after airstrikes in Syria targeting Tehran-backed militias.

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It feels like a century ago, but last January, the United States took out Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. This was met by gasps from the kind of people that go clutching at “preserving norms” and thought the disastrous Iran nuclear deal was working swimmingly until former President Trump pulled out.

Soleimani, besides being in a leadership position of the terrorist-designated IRGC, was Iran’s man inside the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. officials estimated that he’d been responsible for the deaths of over 600 of our soldiers, according to the Washington Examiner.

He was beloved with the Iranian regime and among its followers — which says a lot more about them than it does about Soleimani — and after a massive, state-run show of grief, some form of military retribution from Iran was inevitable.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 8, 2020, Iraq time, that retribution arrived. Iran launched a barrage of missiles at the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. However, according to The Washington Post, American forces were prepared for the attacks and troops at the base were safely in fortified bunkers. There were no injuries or deaths.

“No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well. I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform,” then-President Donald Trump said at the time.

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The fact no Americans were killed precluded the very real possibility of war. (The fact Iran that shot down a Ukrainian airliner in the confusion following its own missile strike also made any further belligerence on Tehran’s part problematic, but this is beside the point.)

Some believed at the time that Iran deliberately missed targets of interest. There wasn’t a whole lot of explanation about what the “early warning system” Trump talked about entailed, either.

However, according to a January report from the C4ISRNET, one of the reasons why we were able to prevent any deaths from happening was the Space-Based Infrared System, a satellite-based platform operated by the servicemen and women behind “the plane of today.” Or, more specifically, Space Force’s 2nd Space Warning Squadron, based at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado.

“This is what they’re trained to do day in and day out,” Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Brandon Davenport told C4ISRNET, which focuses on technology and military matters.

“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.”

After Soleimani was killed, the 2nd Space Warning Squadron knew they had to prepare for reciprocity from the Iranians.

“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,” 1st Lt. Christianna Castaneda told C4SIRNET.

“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.”

As the Iranians launched the attack — it was still late on Jan. 7 in the U.S. — Space Force sensors picked it up, C4ISRNET reported.

“With the indications that we received, we knew immediately that this was the threat that we were potentially waiting for,” Mission Commander 1st Lt. Mariano Long told C4ISRNET.

“That night it came out of nowhere. It was a lot of missiles quick, and we could see where they were trying to impact,” he added. “We knew, literally, people that were serving alongside us were being targeted.”

They got the word to Al Asad as quickly as possible.

That was the final element of intelligence gathering that preceded the actual missiles exploding on the base, and followed earlier warnings that gave U.S. commanders on the ground time to prepare to avoid the worst of what Iran intended.

A CBS News “60 Minutes” report on the attack that aired Sunday detailed how important that early warning information was.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, who commands U.S. forces in the Middle East, told “60 Minutes” the first sign that retaliation was coming was when the U.S. military learned Iran “began to move their ballistic missiles.”

On the ground in Iraq, according to “60 Minutes,” Army Maj. Alan Johnson “got the word that Iran’s most powerful weapons were aiming for Al Asad.”

“My intelligence officer pulled me aside and basically said, ‘Sir, I’ve got some bad news for you … We have information that Iran is fueling 27 medium-range ballistic missiles and their intention is to level this base and we may not survive,'” Johnson said.

Lt. Col. Tim Garland, who commands an Army battalion at Al Asad, told “60 Minutes” there was no way to defend against the attack at the base itself.

Al Asad commanders used a small window of opportunity to evacuate about 1,000 military personnel — about half the base’s complement — and more than 50 aircraft, “60 Minutes” reported. But the base still had to be manned.

That meant there were Americans in danger when the Iranian missiles were in the air.

“It was such an unprecedented threat. I don’t think it was ever calculated, so the capability to prevent a ballistic missile attack it — it wasn’t there,” Garland told “60 Minutes.”

“The only real defense against a ballistic missile attack is to get out of harm’s way,” Air Force Lt. Col. Staci Coleman told the program. “The honest truth is I didn’t think that we were going to survive.”

That they did could well be attributed to precious minutes of warning they received thanks to their Space Force comrades in arms back in Colorado.

C4ISRNET describes the scene at the Buckley:

“There was no flashing red light or siren that went off in Colorado when the attack began, just days after Soleimani’s death. If anything, the detection of the threat was fairly mundane. The SBIRS sensors picked up the infrared flare of the Iranian missiles just like they would for a space launch, but they’re sensitive enough that operators can see what threat class of missile they’re dealing with and where it’s heading.”

“Our goal is always to try to be as correct as possible — like we always do — but most importantly getting that message out fast,” Long told the publication. “When we see multiples … we definitely have heightened alertness.”

And if you think this is something where Iran deliberately missed targets with impotent weapons to save face without risking lives being lost — well, no. Even with the warnings, it was a very near thing for many of the Americans in the target area.

“Well, words can’t even describe the amount of energy that is released by these, these missiles,” Johnson told “60 Minutes.”

“Knocked the wind out of me followed by the most putrid-tasting, ammonia-tasting dust that swept through the bunker coated your teeth … The fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air.”

And even though he was in a bunker, there wasn’t necessarily the kind of protection needed from missiles like these, with warheads weighing 1,000 pounds.

“We’re going to burn to death. We start heading down 135 meters, make it about a third of the way there. The big voice we call it, clicks in, ‘Incoming, Incoming, Take Cover, Take Cover, Take Cover,'” Johnson said. “I’ve got another football field to run. I don’t know when this next missile’s going to hit.”

But he made it.

“It’s six people running for their lives to get to this next bunker. We get to the bunker and realize there’s roughly 40 people trying to stuff themselves into this bunker that’s made for about ten folks.  And I grabbed the guy in front of me and I’m just like, ‘You gotta get in the bunker!’ And just, like — like, shoved everybody in there.”

As bad as the night was for Johnson and his fellow soldiers, the consequences could have been far worse for millions who would be impacted — and countless killed — by all-out hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

“Things are happening that could take us to war if we don’t make the correct move here,” McKenzie said. “Had Americans been killed, it would have been very different.”

But couldn’t another branch of the armed forces have done this? Well, yes — but that misses the point.

Space Force is a branch of the armed services that specializes in one of the most important emergent areas in military technology — space-based early warning systems, GPS, satellites, space planes and orbital surveillance. It’s similar to asking whether the Air Force should have been created as a separate branch of the military instead of remaining the U.S. Army Air Force, like it was until 1947. It did a good enough job in World War II, right?

The attack at Al Asad showed how Space Force, along with the rest of our military’s intelligence capabilites, was able to make this look like a foolish waste of missiles on the part of the Iranians.

New threats and new technology require new thinking — which is why Space Force is the most effective way to ensure these systems are deployed effectively and in a timely manner. Rest assured, no one at Al Asad was making “plane of today” jokes last Jan. 8, and not just because the quip was awkward and unfunny.

Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that “60 Minutes” report didn’t appear in a vacuum, although one guesses the timing was unintentional.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes against targets in Syria controlled by Iranian-backed militias. According to NBC News, the attacks were retaliation for rocket attacks on U.S. targets.

They come only only a year and change after Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act that included the creation of the United States Space Force in December 2019, an act that is already proving its worth and could well prove to be a genius military move in the future.

The attacks surprisingly didn’t get much play in the media, in spite of the fact the strike took place in the profoundly destabilized failed state of Syria and Tehran vowed revenge yet again. Iranian state media said the U.S. attacks, which killed 22, “will lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region.”

It’s too early to tell what the blowback from the strikes will be. If the Biden administration ends up getting itself dug into the mire in Syria and wants to avoid war with Iran over taking on its proxies, however, I’d imagine a) that early warning system might come in handy and b) there won’t be quite as many Space Force jokes around the briefing room. Just some predictions.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture