Satellite Image Shows First Two B-52 Bombers Have Arrived In Diego Garcia Amid Iran Crisis
President Donald Trump has announced new sanctions and called for international action on Iran, but also says he is evaluating other response options.
New satellite imagery, which The War Zone exclusively obtained from Planet Labs, shows two B-52s at the U.S. air base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where they are out of the reach of Iranian missiles. These are the first of six of the bombers that the U.S. military is deploying to the remote base amid heightened tensions with Iran and now in the wake of unprecedented Iranian missile strikes targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.
The imagery in question is dated today, Jan. 8, 2020 at 11:09AM. The first reports that the U.S. Air Force was sending six B-52s to Diego Garcia on Jan. 6 and plane spotters using online flight tracking software noticed the first two aircraft heading out that same day. At the time of writing, there is no indication that any of the other four bombers have left the United States.
The imagery also shows a number of U.S. ships in the lagoon in the middle of the Island, which belong to one of two Prepositioning Ship Squadrons, part of Military Sealift Command's Maritime Prepositioning Force. These vessels are pre-loaded with various vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and other equipment and are in place in order to be able to help U.S. forces rapidly respond to a crisis.
As The War Zone previously reported, the obvious reasoning for sending the bombers to the base on Diego Garcia, which is part of the United Kingdom's British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), was to keep them out of the range of any potential Iranian missile strikes on bases on the Arabian Peninsula. You can read more about this and the U.S. military's presence on Diego Garcia, in general, here.
This decision now seems especially prudent given Iran's act of firing at least 16 short-range ballistic missiles at two bases U.S. forces occupy in Iraq overnight in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, last week. The Quds Force is the extra-territorial arm of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In brief remarks earlier today in response to the Iranian missile strikes in Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump revealed that an unspecified "early warning system" had given U.S. forces in Iraq advance notice of the missile strikes, allowing them to seek cover and avoid suffering any casualties. The President was very likely referring to U.S. early-warning infrared satellites, namely the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece. We were first to discuss this reality last night in our rolling coverage on the strikes, stating:
Something to remember is that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence data to analyze from America's space-based early warning network of infrared sensing satellites alone. Where the launches emanated from and where the missiles impacted, even the ones that missed, would have been recorded. The system can detect smaller infrared events as well and its data that could be used to help confirm if the Ukrainian airliner was indeed shot down. This same network, which is about to get even more capable, would have given near-instant warning that a launch was underway, which in turn gave American and allied troops time to take cover and prepare for the incoming bombardment. You can read all about this system in this past piece of ours.
Other reports say that signals intelligence and other sources and methods gave American personnel additional notice that an attack could be coming soon.
Satellite imagery The War Zone has also exclusively obtained of Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, the main target of the recent Iranian missile strikes, does show a number of hangars and other aviation-related structures destroyed and damaged. This shows that even with advance warning, it can still be difficult, if not impossible to fully safeguard aircraft and other assets from incoming strikes, underscoring the value of having additional elements safely positioned outside the range of hostile forces should a much broader strike have occurred.
The B-52s at Diego Garcia can carry dozens of stealthy conventionally-armed cruise missiles and potentially nuclear weapons, depending on which specific aircraft the Air Force has deployed. They are clearly meant to be a signal to the regime in Tehran about the United States' capacity to retaliate, even in the wake of an Iranian first strike against Ameican bases in the Middle East. At the same time, it is important to stress that the presence of the bombers on Diego Garcia does not necessarily mean that a bomber strike on Iran is imminent.
In brief remarks earlier today in response to the Iranian missile strikes in Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump only announced plans for additional sanctions on the regime in Tehran. "These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior," Trump added, before noting various examples of Iranian aggression in the past six months or so, including unprecedented suicide drone and cruise missile attacks on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' shoot down of a U.S. Navy drone flying over the Gulf of Oman in June 2019.
He also called on the remaining parties to the international deal over Iran's controversial nuclear program to abandon it, as the United States already did in 2018, and negotiate a new arrangement in its place. Iran has also recently announced plans to further roll back its compliance with this agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but insists that it could still reverse course if its own demands, including sanctions relief, are met. Concerns are growing that Iran could be positioning itself for a rapid "breakout" toward building a nuclear weapon, though public U.S. intelligence assessments have repeatedly stated that there are no clear indications that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, at present.
In addition, Trump said he would be seeking additional cooperation from NATO in containing Iran and otherwise responding to the regime's aggression. the President said that he was not seeking war with Iran and also said that it and the United States had a shared interest in the defeat of ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, Trump noted that "we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression," which could potentially include military strikes, as well as non-kinetic options, such as cyberattacks. Over the weekend the President had threatened a major retaliatory strike against Iran, but only if it killed U.S. personnel in any future strike. Regardless, even if the U.S. and Iranian government succeed in de-escalating tensions between them, there remains the possibility that Iranian-backed proxies throughout the Middle East may launch attacks on American interests or those of its allies and partners, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
There have already been mounting concerns for U.S. military personnel in Lebanon, which is home to the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, which has also threatened to retaliate over Soleimani's death. There have been reports that the government in Cyprus announced has agreed to allow the United States to station a rapid reaction force there, which would be well-positioned to respond to any crisis in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"To the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future and a great future – one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world," Trump said in the closing portion of his remarks earlier today. "The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it."
It remains to be seen how both Iran and the United States, as well as their regional partners, proceed following the missile strikes in Iraq. The two B-52 bombers on Diego Garcia, as well as the four others still reportedly set to deploy there, certainly give the U.S. government some of those additional options that Trump referred to in his speech.
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