The newly formed US Space Force is deploying troops to a vast new frontier -- the Arabian Peninsula.
The Space Force now has a squadron of 20 airmen stationed at Qatar's Al-Udeid Air Base in its first foreign deployment. The force, pushed by President Donald Trump, represents the sixth branch of the US military and the first new military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.
Future wars may be waged in outer space, but the Arabian Desert already saw what military experts dub the world's first "space war" — the 1991 Desert Storm operation to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Today, the US faces new threats in the region from Iran's missile program and efforts to jam, hack, and blind satellites.
"We're starting to see other nations that are extremely aggressive in preparing to extend conflict into space," Col. Todd Benson, director of Space Force troops at Al-Udeid, told The Associated Press. "We have to be able to compete and defend and protect all of our national interests."
In a swearing-in ceremony earlier this month at Al-Udeid, 20 Air Force troops, flanked by American flags and massive satellites, entered Space Force. Soon several more will join the unit of "core space operators" who will run satellites, track enemy maneuvers, and try to avert conflicts in space.
"The missions are not new and the people are not necessarily new," Benson said.
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The Space Force will have a projected unit consisting of 16,000 personnel with a 2021 budget of $15.4 billion.
Concerns over the weaponization of outer space are decades old. But as space becomes increasingly contested, military experts have cited the need for a space corps devoted to defending American interests.
Threats from global competitors have grown since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the U.S. military first relied on GPS coordinates to tell troops where they were in the desert as they pushed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait.
Benson declined to name the "aggressive" nations his airmen will monitor and potentially combat. But the decision to deploy Space Force personnel at Al-Udeid follows months of escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
Iran launched its first satellite into space back in April. Military experts describe Iran's Revolutionary Guard program as a secret military space program. The Guard said it put the "Noor," or "Light," satellite into a low orbit circling the Earth.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran's space agency, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program to set satellites into orbit.
Other world powers with more advanced space programs, like Russia and China, have made more threatening progress, US officials contend.
Last month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that Russia and China were developing weapons that could knock out U.S. satellites, potentially scattering dangerous debris across space and paralyzing cell phones and weather forecasts, as well as American drones, fighter jets, aircraft carriers and even nuclear weapon controllers.