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When you think of the hardware the American military uses to defend the country and project power, you probably envision the usuals: tanks, fighter aircraft, destroyers, amphibious assault vehicles. But the machinery looks a little different when it comes to the United States Space Force because much of it is hardware in orbit. Satellites and space vehicles in low earth orbit (LEO), medium earth orbit (MEO), geostationary earth orbit (GEO), and highly elliptical orbit (HEO) offer American forces secure data and communications pathways, along with satellite and space debris tracking, position/navigation/timing, weather observation, and detailed imagery.

Earth-based systems, like ground-control stations in New Hampshire and Guam and radars in Florida and the Space Surveillance Telescope in Australia, facilitate the capabilities, and some help USSF provide advanced missile warning. (The Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, constellation operated by Space Force is the U.S. military’s primary missile warning satellite system and one of USSF’s premier combat support systems.)

The SBIRS classified missile-launch detection capabilities are some of the most sensitive and accurate in existence—a point that was dramatically demonstrated in January 2020, when a U.S. drone strike just outside Baghdad International Airport in Iraq killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian military officer and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander. Five days later, as Iran attempted to retaliate by launching short-range ballistic missiles carrying munitions at American forces on Al Asad Air Base and Irbil Airport in Iraq, the launches of more than 12 Iranian missiles were detected, according to the Pentagon. USSF operators confirmed the data and alerted U.S. forces in Iraq almost immediately, giving American troops early warning (mere minutes to take cover and prepare for incoming fire).

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