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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel will be facing a possible threat to its vital space-based assets within the coming decade for which it has to start preparing immediately, Israel Air Force chief Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedy told the second Ilan Ramon Annual International Space Conference in Herzliya Wednesday.
His comments came in light of China's destruction on January 11 of one of its own satellites, an act that has sparked concern among the world's leading space powers that potential enemies may target their space-based assets in a version of Star Wars not heard of since the Reagan administration at the height of the Cold War.
Although China has officially denied any military or political motivation for its act two weeks ago, a point reaffirmed Wednesday to the Post by the Chinese military attache in Israel, the US and India have, since the Chinese incident, made remarks about the need to protect their civilian and military [dual-use] space assets.
Addressing the conference, which was held under the auspices of the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, and the Science, Sports and Culture Ministry, Shkedy said: "The advantage of information and intelligence in a time of war is paramount to victory. Operational capabilities, command and control, as well as application of force are increasingly connected to space-based assets. It is hard to imagine fighting a war without these assets. Israel will develop its capabilities in space in the coming years as the connection between the military and space is growing. The Americans, Indians and Chinese are all investing huge sums of money in space."
From a purely operational perspective, Shkedy added, Israel needed to become fully autonomous in its space industry and develop its own capabilities. While not relating to China's motivations for destroying its satellite in the fashion that it did, Shkedy said the message "cannot be ignored."
"Battle in space is on our agenda, whether we want it there or not. We need to understand how we develop and protect our space assets at the relevant time. Within five to 10 years this will sadly be very relevant. There may be those who would seek to harm our forces in space, as they would our forces on land and at sea. We could face this reality in a high-intensity conflict in the future," Shkedy said.
Last year, at the first Ilan Ramon Conference, Shkedy announced a change in the official name of the Israel Air Force, to the Israel Air and Space Command. Israel Aircraft Industries recently changed its name to the Israel Aerospace Industries.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was not at the conference but sent a statement to delegates, said Israel had to be ready for "present and future threats" from unfriendly nations harming its space assets, "as we saw was possible by the Chinese example."
"Israel needs to make sure that it is not cut off from its space assets during a time of conflict," Peretz said.
Maj.-Gen. [res] Prof. Chaim Eshed, head of the Space Program Department of the Defense Ministry, says that while the surveillance aspect of the global satellite industry is at five percent, Israel's situation is much different, with a much larger percentage of Israel's space-based assets focused on high-resolution surveillance and other defense-related surveillance functions.
Gen.[res] Prof. Itzhak Ben-Israel, head of the Israel Space Agency, said satellites are integral to the direction of smart munitions, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions [JDAM], or bunker-busting guided missiles, of which, as first reported in The Jerusalem Post this week, Israel has just purchased $100 million worth.
To "qualitatively upgrade" Israel's geopolitical situation, it would have to spend between $150 and $200 million on its space program, Ben-Israel said.
Israel currently spends $50m. on its space industry.
While several senior officers pointed to Iran as the major threat to Israel's national security for the foreseeable future, one former top IAF officer told the Post that Iran was still far off from threatening Israeli satellites. Although boasting it would soon launch its own satellite, Iran was just showing it had developed advanced missile capabilities, with missiles that could travel the required distance at the required velocity to break through earth's orbit. That in itself was a threat to Israel, the former officer said, adding, however, that Israel was much more advanced than Iran in its space-based military capabilities.
Speaking to the Post before his speech to the conference, Lt.-Gen. Frank G. Klotz, vice commander, USAF Space Command, said space was becoming increasingly important for all aspects of life, and particularly in the military sphere.
Echoing Shkedy's comments, Klotz, a three-star general, said it would be difficult to imagine conducting complex military operations without space-based assets. "US worldwide military deployment requires fast communications and control over vast distances. As a nation that is very dependent upon space, we expect there will be emerging threats from adversaries in the future recognizing the critical import space plays in the economic and military operations of our nation, and will no doubt try to engage us there," Klotz said.
He added that America was concerned over these threats, and would act to counter them. "We're concerned about any attempt to deny our country, or any other country for that matter, access to space and its peaceful purposes," Klotz added. The senior USAF official added that both America and Israel relied heavily on satellites for missile launch warnings, navigation for ships and ground troops, and guided munitions.
None of the currently serving IAF and US Air Force officers would comment on how they plan to protect their satellites, and the Ministry of Defense Space Authority would also not be drawn to react to Shkedy's comments.
The former IAF officer pointed to sophisticated ground-based and airborne laser systems as possible tools the USAF was looking into as a defense mechanism. These lasers would target and destroy incoming missiles that threaten US satellites.
The former officer would not say if Israel had asked to make use of these systems once they became operational, but noted that Israel and the US were involved in deep and continuous strategic dialogue spanning a wide variety of threats.
Israel entered the space race in the wake of the peace agreement with Egypt, after which Israel agreed to cease all surveillance flights over Egyptian air space. Israel's endeavors in space started for defense purposes "has largely retained that function" but has also branched out into commercial and dual-use applications.
In 1981, prime minister Menachem Begin authorized the Defense Ministry to establish a Space Department, and in 1983, the Israeli Space Agency was established under the auspices of the Science Ministry. In 1984, the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa opened a Space Research Institute, and in the following years both Tel-Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have done extensive work on satellites and space research.
Israel has launched, or piggybacked on other nation's launches, several satellites into orbit: the Ofek 1 and 2, Amos 1 and 2 commercial satellites - with the Amos 3 and 4 in development, the Eros A and B, and the Ofek 3 and 5 military satellites.
Other developments, especially in micro satellites - a field in which Israel excels - are in the pipeline. NASA is particularly interested in Israel's expertise in the smaller satellites, as they are lighter in weight [100kg to 200 kg], which allows for an easier launch. Israel has also developed a plasma propulsion mechanism for these satellites, which has garnered great attention by the European Space Agency.
China destroyed its satellite as it was "out of use," and not due to strategic military or diplomatic needs, Senior Colonel Zou Jizhi said, adding that China had given the large space powers advanced warning ahead of the satellite's destruction.
China, Jizhi told the Post, decided to blow up the satellite and not leave it in orbit in order to "not add to the pollution around earth's orbit."
Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, was quoted in the January 22 edition of The New York Times as saying, "This is a wake-up call," adding, "A small number of states are pursuing capabilities to exploit our vulnerabilities."
Janes, a respected military publication, called it a "big, fat challenge" to the US, in effect putting America and others on notice that they could not take for granted their vast, and growing, reliance on satellites for military purposes.
Jizhi rejected what others are calling a "geopolitical bombshell" towards the major space powers.