Security and Defense: Reaching for the stars

By
September 28, 2011 17:02

Father of Israel’s satellite program Eshed warns country risks losing technological edge over neighbors if it fails to increase investment.




Retired Space Division head Haim Eshed

haim eshed 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

The winter of 1977 was a major turning point for the State of Israel. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat traveled to Jerusalem to begin a process that would culminate in the Camp David peace accords and Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. But it was also when Israel’s space program was born in the mind of a mid-career IDF officer by the name of Haim Eshed.

Eshed, 39 at the time and head of Military Intelligence’s Research & Development Division, took some time off from work to consider how Israel would be able to continue tracking Egyptian military movements now that it was withdrawing from the Sinai, a key buffer zone in preventing ground invasions.

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“I came up with the idea and brought it to my superiors,” Eshed recalled in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post following his retirement this month after a 30-year stint as head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Directorate. “To put it lightly, people were extremely skeptical and some were even adamantly opposed.”

At the time, while Israel was considered something of a military superpower in the region, reaching space was considered far too ambitious and far too expensive for the tiny Jewish State.

“The Soviet Union, the United States and France were just taking their first steps in space and there was tremendous skepticism about whether we could do it or not,” Eshed said. “But I knew that if we wanted to be able to retain an early-warning capability on the Egyptian front we needed to develop a space capability.”

Eshed’s persistence paid off. By 1981, he had convinced head of MI at the time Maj.-Gen. Yehoshua Sagi and together they brought the proposal to prime minister Menachem Begin, who listened attentively to the proponents and opponents before deciding to finance the project. Eshed has no doubt that Begin understood the longterm historical implications of Israeli success in establishing a presence in space.

“I was surprised,” he said from his home in Tel Aviv about the meeting with Begin 33 years earlier. “There was a lot of opposition from within the top IDF brass and I just didn’t think we would be able to convince the prime minister.”

But he did, and seven years later Israel launched its first satellite – Ofek 1 – into space, gaining Israel membership in the exclusive club of nations with independent satellite-launching capabilities. The club, which includes the United States, Russia, France, Japan, China, India and the United Kingdom, added another new member in 2009 – Iran.

On September first, Eshed, now 73, retired from the Defense Ministry where he had served for 30 years as the head of the Space Directorate he had originally founded, ending a 54-year career in the Israeli defense establishment. Eshed is one of the most decorated scientists to have served in the defense establishment – in 1967 he was awarded three Israel Defense Prizes as well as the Chief of Staff’s Medal of Valor for developing a technological system that 44 years later still remains a secret.

Eshed shies away from the spotlight and claims that everything he has achieved was made possible with the support of others and the diligent work of some of the country’s top physicists and engineers. Nevertheless, he is a living example of Israel’s technological brilliance and the infamous hutzpa that enables the country to continue to retain a qualitative military edge over other countries in the Middle East.

Israel’s most recent surveillance satellite, Ofek 9, was launched in June, 2010 from Palmachim Air Force Base.

THE OFEK satellites are developed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). In addition to the Ofek 9, Israel currently has the Ofek 5, the Ofek 7 and the advanced TecSar surveillance satellites in space.

The TecSar is one of a handful of satellites in the world that use advanced radar technology instead of a camera. This enables it to create high-resolution images of objects on the ground in any weather conditions as well as to see through rooftops that are not made of concrete.

Satellites can be used for a wide range of missions – from tracking developments in Iran’s nuclear program to transmitting communications and images to troops operating behind enemy lines. They are also used to help the IDF gather intelligence on places like the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and, considering the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East and, it is likely that they are now looking down at places that for years have not been of interest to Israel. The need for accurate, immediate and reliable intelligence has never been greater.

“Being in space is of strategic importance when facing threats from different places throughout the region since it allows you to be almost anywhere,” Eshed said, pointing out that Israel’s enemies have invested vast amounts of time and money in trying to conceal themselves and their activities.

While Israel is currently considered a world leader in the development of mini and micro satellites – which weigh about 300 kilograms in comparison to America’s “mammoth” satellites that can weigh up to 25 tons – its qualitative edge is under threat, according to Eshed.

Since the beginning, Israel’s space programs have received a relatively small budget – amounting to just a few billion dollars in three decades. While Iran is still years behind Israel in its technological capabilities, the Islamic regime is investing billions of dollars in new missiles, some of which will be able to launch satellites and also serve as long-range ballistic missiles.

“Israel is right after the US in military space capabilities and today we have a relative edge over the rest of the region and [other] parts of the world,” Eshed said. “If, however, we do not increase our investments in the next two years, we stand the risk of losing our edge.”

Behind Eshed’s warning is the government’s refusal to release funds that it had pledged earlier this year as part of an ambitious plan to turn Israel into a space superpower.

The plan was approved by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in early 2011 and was supposed to lead to the allocation of NIS 1.5 billion over five years as an investment in space research and development that would lead to an increase in sales.

Despite Israel’s advanced technology, sales of its space platforms over the past 20 years have totaled less than $2.5b. Yet the international space market, Eshed stressed, is worth $250b. a year, and Israel could carve out at least five percent for itself.

“We are among the top four countries in the world in defense exports and the same could be done with space platforms if the right amount of money was invested,” Eshed said.

Eshed foresees potential Israeli involvement in the US’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program, which is looking to move away from large satellites and to smaller platforms that can be deployed quickly and per operational requirements.

“This is our expertise,” Eshed said. “But, if the government does not insert some money here, the industries that work on space platforms will not have projects, will need to shut down their production lines and we will potentially lose all of the knowledge and expertise we have cultivated over the past 30 years.”


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