(photo credit: Courtesy)
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Haim Eshed is concerned. After 30 years of leading the space program in the Defense Ministry, the 69-year-old scientist fears that without the necessary funding Israel will lose its qualitative edge in space to other countries in the Middle East - such as Iran - that are aggressively pursuing space-based capabilities.
While at the moment Israel is leading the pack, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region are investing unprecedented resources in developing indigenous space-launch capabilities.
"Iran understands that it needs knowledge to get to space and is therefore giving out scholarships to young people to get an education," Eshed told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. "Iran understands that Israel's advantage is its human assets."
Eshed can be considered one of those assets. As a young colonel in Military Intelligence, he came up with the idea that the country needed to develop a satellite capability following the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. At the time Eshed was already something of a hero in the IDF. In 1967 he was awarded the Chief of General Staff's Medal of Valor for developing a system that was and still remains - 42 years later - top secret.
"I understood that with peace at our doorstep, we would no longer be able to fly over the Sinai to collect intelligence and that if we wanted to know what was happening there, the only way would be from above, from satellites," he said.
As head of MI's Research and Development Division, Eshed wrote a proposal that made its way to defense minister Ezer Weizman and finally to prime minister Menachem Begin, who approved the funding for the project in 1980.
"I have no doubt that part of Israel's readiness to move forward with the withdrawal [from Sinai] was the knowledge that we had the ability to indigenously develop a satellite," he said.
ISRAEL'S FIRST satellite, Ofek 1, was launched on September 19, 1988, gaining Israel membership in the exclusive club of nations with independent satellite-launching capabilities. The club, which includes the US, Russia, France, Japan, China, India and the United Kingdom, recently added a new member - Iran.
"When we started the program there was something rude about it," he recalled. "We were a small country that had just been established and we were seeking to develop a capability that at the time only the world's superpowers really had - the United States and the USSR."
But that didn't stop Eshed and in the 20 years that have passed since its first step into space, Israel has launched 15 satellites. The most recent was launched in June 2008 from India. Unlike spy satellites from the Ofek and Eros series, TecSar was one of a handful in the world that uses 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 some 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 like during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year. If foreign media reports are correct and the IAF did bomb a weapons convoy in Sudan in January, it is likely that the satellites were used then too, not to mention the September 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility weeks away from becoming operational.
Following protocol, Eshed refused to refer specifically to the satellites' use but in broad terms explained that their arena of operations has expanded over the years, providing capabilities that allow the IDF to put a set of eyes anywhere in the world.
"Planes can reach the theater of operations near Israel but terrorism has spread farther and farther away," Eshed said. "Just take a look at the reports coming out of Sudan."
As with the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), where Israel is considered a world leader in the field, it is also considered to be one of the foremost experts on the development of "mini-satellites." Unlike the American "mammoth" satellites that can weigh 25 tons, Israel's satellites - developed and manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries - weigh between 300 and 400 kilograms. IAI is also currently working on developing nano-satellites that will weigh just a few dozen kilos and will be capable of providing communication services for IDF operations.
"The world understands that small is beautiful," Eshed explained. "A large satellite costs more money to develop, launch and maintain."
Eshed is trying to lead a new initiative called "dual use" satellites which can be partially owned by investors - from Israel and abroad - and provide civilian as well as military services. The Defense Ministry already receives image services from ImageSat International (ISI), an international company and a commercial provider of high-resolution, satellite earth-imagery.
The need for investors is due to the small budget, some $100 million, at Eshed's disposal. In comparison, the US annually invests $50 billion in its space programs.
BUT DESPITE the small budget, Israel has succeeded in laying strong foundations in space. In addition to the TecSar, it operates the Ofek 5 and Ofek 7 spy satellites, the Amos 1, 2 and 3 communication satellites and it receives services from the Eros A and Eros B satellites made by IAI and owned by ISI.
The resolutions, capabilities and ranges on the Ofek, TecSar and Eros satellites vary.
The Ofek's east-to-west orbit at an altitude of 600 kilometers is aimed at providing optimal daylight coverage of the Middle East. In comparison to US satellites which make just a few cycles of Earth per day, the Ofek, according to foreign reports, makes more than six passes daily. The satellites have also been designed to work in "constellation," which means that they can ensure that an area under surveillance is never left unwatched.
This grants the IDF the ability to use the satellites as tactical tools during operations and not just strategic tools that gather intelligence and assist in assessing the neighbors' intentions.
The Eros A can reportedly spot objects on the ground at a height of 1.5 meters. The Eros B can spot objects at 0.7 meters.
In 2007 IAI unveiled the OPSAT 3000 which is slated to become operational this year and replace the Ofek series. It is capable of unprecedented optical remote sensing with extremely high resolution. More satellites, Eshed said, will be launched in the coming years.
Another program under development, although with low priority, is the development of a mini-satellite that can be launched from F-15s. They will be low cost and have a short life span, but will be capable of providing intelligence for pinpoint strategic operations.
While Israel has made some great achievements in the past 30 years of its space program, it will need additional investments to continue to keep its qualitative edge in the volatile Middle East.
Eshed warned of a "race to space" currently taking place in the Middle East. In February, Iran launched its own satellite and Egypt is working on following suit. Last year, former IAF chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Shkedy warned of the need to prepare for "space warfare" and said the country may be facing a possible threat to its vital space-based assets within the coming decade for which it has to start preparing immediately. Called Omid, or "hope" in Farsi, the Iranian satellite was launched in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran. The rocket launch was detected by the US military.
Iran has long held the goal of developing a space program, generating unease among world leaders already concerned about its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The primary concern is not with the satellite's capabilities - which Eshed says are limited - but with the missile that carried it into space.
"YOU NEED specific and added energy when firing a satellite which weighs between 30 and 50 kilograms into space," explains Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israel Space Agency, who works closely with Eshed. "The equivalent within the atmosphere is firing a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that weighs one ton all the way to Western Europe."
Eshed is concerned by the possibility that Iran, or another of Israel's enemies, will try to disrupt or even intercept one of the country's satellites. In January 2007, China used a ground-based missile to shoot down one of its aging satellites in a clear signal to the West that it has the ability to destroy space-based platforms. In May 2006, China beamed a ground-based laser at an American satellite over its territory in an attempt to blind its surveillance equipment.
"It is not out of the question to imagine that Iran, which spends billions on weaponry, will buy the laser from the Chinese," Eshed said. "While there is a slim chance of this happening, we are protecting our assets in space."
In addition to a potential Iranian missile, Israeli satellites are also threatened by wreckage floating around space. For these reasons, IAI provides a protective cover for its satellites which prevents them from being blinded by lasers and minimizes the damage caused by a floating piece of shrapnel.
But to stay ahead of the Iranians and the rest of the world, additional funds are needed to continue to develop space-based platforms and satellites.
Israel, Eshed said, is number three in the world in publishing research papers on satellites, and receives regular visits from NASA and the European Space Agency, of which it is supposed to become an associate member in the near future.
"Without money we could lose our edge in the world," he said, declaring that his budget does not allow him to commission even basic research papers. "As the man who started the program, I am concerned that our status will start to decline if the country does not take this issue seriously."