Pentagon touts Space Command as boon to Middle East role

The Donald Trump administration's launch of a Pentagon command to defend US space orbiting satellites could give Middle East commanders a boost in protecting their eyes and ears on the battlefield.

al-monitor President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stand behind a flag for the United States Space Command at a White House Rose Garden ceremony to officially launch the organization, Washington, DC, Aug. 29, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.

Aug 30, 2019

The Donald Trump administration officially rolled out the United States Space Command on Thursday, touting the new Pentagon organization as an opening to defend American satellites the military relies on to fight in the Middle East.

Defense Department officials said the newly formed command will give the Pentagon a greater capability to protect US intelligence satellites that the military relies on to target the Islamic State (IS) with precision-guided bombs and to spy on Iranian maneuvers in the Arabian Gulf.

“I really believe that we’re at a strategic inflection point, where there’s nothing that we do as a joint coalition force that isn’t enabled by space. Zero,” said Air Force Gen. Jay Raymond, who will head the new command. “At the same time, our adversaries have had a front-row seat in our many successes of integrating space, and they don’t like what they see, because it provides us such great advantage.”

Space Command will not be inaugurated as a service-level organization on par with the Army or Air Force after lawmakers pushed back on President Trump’s proposal for a Space Force as too burdensome to taxpayers. The new organization will comprise 287 staff at a cost of nearly $84 million, officials said.

Raymond and Stephen Kitay, Pentagon deputy assistant secretary for space policy stressed that the new grouping would not launch strikes against Russian and Chinese satellites. The nascent unit will, however, have a wide remit to defend the 24-satellite Global Positioning System and space-based hardware that provide eyes and ears for US troops in the Middle East.

For instance, US drones and satellites that hover over the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields help the Pentagon collect data on IS and target the resurgent militant group with precision-guided weapons that navigate based on orbiting signals. The Pentagon relied heavily on them during the height of urban battles against IS in Raqqa and Mosul to strike at booby-trapped buildings in neighborhoods where the militants blended in among residents. Rights groups said more than 1,800 non-combatants died from US air raids against IS.

As the Pentagon cut the number of US troops in Syria this year, it surged satellite-enabled intelligence capabilities to the Middle East over the summer, to pull down surveillance data of Arabian Gulf waterways contested by Iran and to eavesdrop on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which began challenging transiting British and US vessels with swarms of small boats.

Space Command operations will be on the defensive side of warfare, Raymond indicated, providing a potential contrast with US rivals, such as potential Russian and Chinese low-level jamming to delay communications or deny GPS signals from a constellation of American satellites. Both nations also have capabilities to blind the Defense Department from spotting missile launches and anti-satellite missiles that could target US systems.

The US is worried that rivals could be stepping up offensives in space. China had launched a head-on test strike against a weather satellite in 2007, scattering space debris into orbit that later circled the International Space Station. India, which has helped Israel put commercial satellites into orbit, tested a similar weapon soon afterward. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats had also expressed concern that the onset of directed energy weapons could give US rivals the ability to strafe space capsules with ranged high-powered lasers and particle beams or destroy missile defense sensors and radar.

The United States has insisted it will attempt to bring allies into the fold as Space Command grows. Cooperation with other countries will begin with the so-called Five Eyes intelligence allies along with France, Germany and Japan. Norway and Japan have also hosted US satellite payloads, officials said.

Top American allies in the Middle East are doubling down on the space industry, while so far in 2019 Iran has attempted three satellite launches, each of which has crashed and burned. National Public Radio reported on Aug. 29 that a commercial Iranian rocket had blown up before takeoff, citing satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s chief rivals in the region have beefed up their space capabilities. The United Arab Emirates has invested more than $5.4 billion in its space program since it got off the ground, aiming at a 2020 date to send astronauts to Mars, according to IDC Herzliya, an Israeli think tank. In February, Saudi Arabia launched a telecommunications satellite that was co-designed with the American weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin to deliver broadcast signals to millions in the Gulf kingdom.

Israel still possesses the most advanced communications satellites in the region, according to analysis from the Australian Lowy Institute think tank. Meanwhile, China and Russia have invested in the space programs of US allies throughout the Middle East, and Beijing has marketed a navigation system to nations that would rival GPS. 

China and Russia, identified by Pentagon strategists as the top US military threats, have sought to level the playing field with the Pentagon by developing new units to fight in space and updating their military doctrine, Defense officials said. Last year, China surpassed the United States in orbital launches according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Our level of superiority is diminishing,” said Kitay, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for space policy.

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