In 1977, a young officer in the IDF’s Intelligence Corps came up with what seemed at the time, like a crazy idea. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had made his historic visit to Jerusalem and it was clear that if peace was going to happen, Israel would need to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, the territory it had captured a decade earlier during the Six Day War.
The problem was that Israel needed Sinai. The peninsula served as a buffer between pre-1967 Israel and Egypt. If Egypt launched another surprise invasion like it did on Yom Kippur in 1973, it would first have to reconquer Sinai and Israel would have time to prepare. Israel couldn’t withdraw before finding a way to keep eyes on the ground.
As the head of the research and development division in the Military Intelligence Directorate it was Col. Haim Eshed’s job to come up with technological solutions for operational problems. His idea for keeping an eye on the Sinai? Build a satellite.
Convincing the government to invest in satellites was a long shot.
Space was supposed to be off limits to small countries like Israel and was, at the time, the sole domain of superpowers. Only seven countries had launched satellites into space. The last to do so had been the United Kingdom in 1971.
The idea was bold for another reason as well. Until then, Israel’s space experience was limited. In 1961, the country launched a meteorological research rocket called Shavit (Hebrew for comet), but it was far from being able to place a satellite in space. And then in 1965, Israel considered establishing a space program but the government rejected the proposal, citing budget and technological constraints.
Eshed knew all of this but he was determined. He first approved the idea with his boss and together they brought it to IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan, who initially dismissed it as “Luftgesheft”, a Yiddish expression used to describe something as a waste of time.
Israel, Eitan argued, needed to begin focusing on the withdrawal of military bases and towns from Sinai and their relocation inside the country. A satellite would be a waste of money. Anyhow, the chief of staff said, the air force had told him that its aircraft could provide all of the aerial reconnaissance the country needed even after a withdrawal.
Eitan also claimed that once there was peace, Israelis could simply drive into Sinai to look around and see if the Egyptians were preparing for war. But Eshed and his commanding officer pushed back. “That’s impossible,” they said. “We would need to look inside every single Beduin tent to really know what is going on.”
Reconnaissance flights over Egypt, they argued, were also out of the question, since Israel wouldn’t be able to violate Egyptian sovereignty after it had reached a peace deal. The only viable option was to build a satellite.
It took some pushing, guts and creativity, but Eshed ultimately succeeded and Israel launched its first satellite into space in 1988, gaining membership in the exclusive club of nations with independent satellite-launching capabilities, joining the US, Russia, France, Japan, China, India and the United Kingdom.
In the years since, Israel has grown into a satellite superpower. As with the other military platforms it specializes in developing, Israel has shied away from building big satellites and instead designs what are known as “mini satellites,” which weigh about 300 kilograms in comparison to America’s “mammoth” 25-ton models.
By 2016, with the launch of the Ofek-11, Israel had nearly 10 spy satellites in space, most of which use electro-optical sensors, cameras that can take high-resolution photos. In addition, Israel has a number of communication satellites of the Amos series, almost all of which have been designed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries.
BUT NOW, all this may be in danger. Why? Because of $15 million that the government was supposed to allocate to underwrite Israel’s satellite space program, but hasn’t.
The current story starts in September 2016 when Amos-6, which according to IAI was the most advanced communications satellite it had ever developed, was lost when its SpaceX Falcon-9 launcher exploded in a prelaunch test. The satellite had been built for Spacecom, an Israeli company that is the primary operator of Amos satellites.
After the loss of Amos-6, Spacecom went shopping for a replacement. It first approached IAI but was offered a satellite at a price significantly higher than from foreign competitors. The difference in cost is the result of a number of factors, but primarily the fact that IAI produces, on average, only one communications satellite every four years. In comparison, in the US and Europe, some companies build five a year, and as with almost every market, when there is higher production, the price can be more competitive.
As a result, two weeks ago Spacecom announced that it was dropping IAI as its main satellite supplier and had selected the US-based Loral Space Systems to build its communications satellite at a cost of $112m.
IAI was furious. If Spacecom’s decision stands, the Israeli communications satellite industry will close. Due to the high cost of Israeli satellites, it can’t seriously compete in the global market and is dependent on state subsidies to keep going. That is why after the Amos-6 disaster, a government-appointed committee recommended that the state provide $20m. a year in funding for the communications satellite industry. But the money is nowhere to be seen. All that has been set aside is a mere $4m.
This is Chelm. Israel’s satellite industry is an asset of national proportions. At a time when the country is facing threats along its borders, when the threat of cyberattacks is on the rise, Israel needs to retain an independent satellite capability. Israel can’t outsource capabilities that strike at the core of its national security needs. All the more so, when all we are talking about is a government subsidy of $20m. In comparison, almost double that was quickly set aside two years ago for the evacuated residents of the illegal outpost of Amona.
As it stands, Israel’s space agency today already receives the bare minimum – a mere $22m. a year from the government, which is about $3 per capita. That is in comparison to countries in Europe where the state’s per capita investment in space programs is between $10 and $20. While Israel is meant to compete with other Western countries, its space budget is somewhere in size between those of Pakistan and Argentina.
This is ridiculous. Israel is something of an island in the Middle East. It cannot rely on the few fiber optic cables that cross the bottom of the sea for its growing communication needs. Just as Israel cannot outsource the security of the Mediterranean Sea – which is the country’s main trade conduit – it can’t outsource its communications. As the country and the military become more network centric, it is imperative that Israel – and Israel only – have its finger on the switch of its satellites.
With the launch of its first satellite 30 years ago, Israel gained space independence. Let’s not lose that the year we celebrate seven decades of statehood.