Analysis: Eyes in the sky

The timing of Monday's launch, which put Israel at the forefront of satellite development, should not be ignored.

ofek 7 88 (photo credit: )
ofek 7 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's successful launch of the Ofek 7 on Monday should not be taken lightly. While Israel has proven numerous times that it has the ability to independently develop, manufacture and launch satellites into space, the timing of Monday's launch was difficult to ignore. While Israel Aerospace Industries and the Defense Ministry made the last-minute preparations for the launch on Sunday, a diplomat with the International Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna revealed that Iran was operating an additional 300 centrifuges each week at its enrichment center in Natanz. At the same time, Israel is debating whether to renew peace talks or go to war with Syria, which is beefing up forces along the Golan Heights. But beyond the contribution the new satellite will make to IDF operations and to the work being done at Military Intelligence, it also places Israel at the forefront of global satellite development. Israel is one of seven countries with independent satellite launch capabilities and is part of an exclusive club that includes the United States, France, Japan, China, India and Russia. The launching also comes at a time when there is a "race to space" taking place in the Middle East. Iran recently tried launching a satellite into space and Egypt is working on following Israel's suit. In February, IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy warned that 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. The consequences are clear: While Iran already purchases images of Israel from civilian satellite companies, a successful independent launch by Teheran could spell even more danger for the Middle East and would mean that they have the ability to launch ballistic rockets into space and potentially intercept Western satellites. Israel's space program began in the 1980s and since then, despite a number of failures and setbacks, the country has succeeded in launching close to 10 satellites into space, with an outrageously-small annual budget of around $50 million. In comparison, the US annually invests $50 billion in its space programs. Despite the tiny budget, Israel has had some great successes and last year doubled the US in the number of academic articles Israelis wrote about space and satellites. Ofek 7, defense officials pointed out, would work in conjunction with Ofek 5, launched in 2004 and would grant the IDF the capability to use the satellites as tactical tools during operations and not just strategic tools that gathered intelligence and assisted Israel in assessing its neighbors' intentions. But for Israel 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. Leading the efforts is Maj.-Gen. (res.) Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, head of the Israeli Space Agency. "We need more funds," he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "While people around the country are proud that Israel has satellites in space, that is not enough and we need to begin to invest more in this field." Ben-Israel has drafted a plan calling for an increase in the annual budget to $130m. that he says would return $2b. in revenue to the state in sales to civilian companies. He has, however, yet to hear back from the government, which he explains is preoccupied with other seemingly more pressing issues than outer space. "We are in a good position," he explains. "But we could be much better."