Intel/GEOINT

Report: Iran used commercial satellite images to monitor US forces before attack

UPDATE: Added response from U.S. Central Command.

WASHINGTON — Iran used commercial satellite images to monitor Ain al-Asad Air Base in Iraq as it prepared to launch more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. and coalition forces, 60 Minutes reported.

That detail came more than a year after the night of the attack on Jan. 7, 2020. Iran said the barrage was “fierce revenge” for the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed by the U.S. in a drone strike days earlier. The missile attack damaged the base, equipment and a helicopter, and 110 people had to be treated for traumatic brain injuries. But no one was killed, thanks in part to early intelligence that an attack was imminent and a critical early warning from the Space Force’s missile warning satellite operators.

The 60 Minutes report revealed new details about the timing of the evacuation, and how Iran tried to use commercially available satellite imagery to monitor the base.

The report said that Iran purchased satellite images of the base on the day of the attack, and U.S. Central Command was aware of it. According to CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, USCENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie timed the evacuation of al-Asad Air Base around Iran’s purchase of satellite imagery of the base.

“If you go too early, you risk the problem that the enemy will see what you have done and adjust his plans,” McKenzie told the reporter.

McKenzie waited until Iran had purchased its last satellite image of the day before evacuating the base, ensuring that Iran was acting on out-of-date images, he said in the interview.

“They would have seen airplanes on the ground and people working,” said McKenzie. “I think they expected to destroy a number of U.S. aircraft and to kill a number of U.S. service members.”

In a statement, USCENTCOM told C4ISRNET that it “does assess that Iran uses commercial satellite imagery from a variety of sources.” It declined to answer further questions.

Ain al-Asad tactical ballistic missile attack

Unclassified footage of Iran's tactical ballistic missile strikes on Ain al-Asad air base Jan. 8, 2020. No one was killed in the attack, but 110 people were treated for traumatic brain injuries. (Central Command)

It is not clear which satellite imagery provider Iran purchased the images from.

The U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Defense buy commercial satellite imagery for a number of different uses. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency purchases unclassified commercial images to share with other government organizations, while the National Reconnaissance Office is using study contracts to determine what commercial imagery it will purchase for the intelligence community. The military is also showing increased interest in the growing commercial satellite imagery market, signing agreements with various companies for images and real-time analytics. In September, the U.S. Army experimented with using commercial imagery for beyond-line-of-sight targeting.

It’s also not clear how the U.S. military knew Iran was purchasing the images, or how it knew when images of al-Asad Air Base were purchased.

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