In a well-guarded underground facility in an Israel Defense Forces unit located in the center of the country, Intelligence Branch soldiers track what's happening on every spot on the globe in almost real time. The footage comes from Israeli spy satellites orbiting in space, and soldiers in the war room are also in charge of deciphering the footage, so no suspicious activity in Khan Yunis, Bushehr, Pyongyang, Damascus, Jenin or Beirut will escape the eyes of our security establishment.
Israel is a real power in the space arena, the one that is going to determine the outcome of the next war. Our satellites scan the entire world once every 90 minutes. More important, they fly over areas where trouble is expected and photograph them once a day. So at any given moment there is one Israeli eye looking at our neighboring countries, especially at the Iranian nuclear facilities. According to foreign press reports, the satellites can detect objects on the ground no bigger than half a meter.
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime is aware and concerned, and Western intelligence operatives surmise that Russia is supplying Iran with the means to hide its nuclear facilities from the radar systems Israel has developed. The Russians are providing special camouflage netting, meant to prevent satellite sensors from photographing what's happening on the ground.
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In the satellite photographs shot after the mysterious bombings in Tehran and Isfahan and published in the international media, it was possible to see a makeshift "tent" set up outside the courtyard of one of the damaged buildings. It was meant to conceal materials and keep them out of the range of the satellite's eye.
"From Israel's standpoint, everything's exposed," says Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Brothers Institute. "It can see everything going on in all of the Arab countries, whether near or far. The satellites' resolution allows us to detect small details that reveal quite a few tricks, maneuvers and other secret activities."
Just like sci-fi
The IDF Satellite Unit was established 15 years ago. Regular soldiers and reservists sit in front of computer screens in the war room and try to extract every piece of important information from the images they're examining.
The Intelligence Unit tracks down the soldiers it wants while they're still in high school and invites them in for testing. There's no room for compromise: They're looking for the best and the brightest who excel in math and physics. Some 30 soldiers are hand-picked for the job annually, and they have to sign up for a half a year's regular army duty on induction beyond their required service.
The new recruits take a training course at the Intelligence Corps' School for Satellite Studies, during which they are again divided up into three jobs: soldiers in charge of operations, guidance and handling of footage. The course is very intensive. They study for some 14 hours a day and within about six months become top-rate computer people. At regular schools and under normal circumstances one could reach their level only after obtaining an academic degree or two, and certainly not at age 18 or 19.
"It's a small unit, but the soldiers in it are the best there are, and it serves a wide variety of customers," a defense official says.
Unit members use the satellites for just about anything. These sensitive and expensive systems, which orbit some 500 kilometers from Earth and are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, become their own private toys: They direct them to the desired location, plan the operation, oversee it, collect the data, analyze it and distribute it to the relevant parties.
"There are those who think what we're doing is science fiction," the commander of the unit said recently. "We have entered a new world that didn't exist before and it's changed things completely. We can reach places and times that we never could before and provide the decision-makers with new material and data that sheds light on what's happening on the other side."
The Satellite Unit got some exposure a few years ago at the Ilan Ramon International Space Conference. Col. Eli Pollack, who at the time was commander of the VISINT (Visual Intelligence) and Mapping Division of Israel Defense Intelligence, and later became chief field intelligence officer, said: "Without the world of satellites, we likely wouldn't be able to see what's happening in Iran. Israel's ability to have a presence in distant places depends on the satellite. We need continuous coverage, 24/7 and in all kinds of visibility, high resolution filming and coverage of large areas all over the world – and improvement of our deterrence capabilities via frequent sampling of targets."
There is almost no serious military operation today in which the Israeli defense establishment doesn't use satellite photographs. Space is playing a part in more and more activities and operations. The way things operate in the unit resembles contract work: When any client from the chief of staff's office to an air force squadron to the headquarters of one of the armed forces needs a satellite photo from a particular area, it sends a work order to the unit. In a few hours or days the information is supplied. The satellite picture that reaches the ground station is just raw material but by using advanced technological methods, all the details ordered are obtained.
Going against the flow
Israel is one of only eight states who have succeeded in launching a satellite into space. The last satellite launched by Israel, Ofek 9, was launched from the Palmahim Air Force base near Rishon Lezion about 18 months ago. The Israeli space program, by the way, has a unique problem. Unlike what's customary in the rest of the world, Israel must launch its satellites to its west, opposite the direction in which the world turns. It can't fire them toward the east because of the surrounding Arab countries.
Israel Air Force Chief of Staff Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Sheffer said after the last launching: "Ofek 9 is much better than other satellites orbiting in space. The other side is well aware of our abilities. I think they understand very well the significance of us having another satellite. I think they have a reason to fear us. We're interested in many things, not just Iran."
When the space program began, back in the 1980s, the air force was opposed to shifting chunks of its budget to this area. But since then there's been a turnaround. Changing the name of the corps to the "air and space arm" was a lot more than just a symbolic act, and demonstrates the importance the IDF is paying to the new generation of warfare – not just on land, sea or air, but outside the atmosphere. The relative advantage of photographing from space is that material is obtained from places that regular aircraft can't access.
Israel currently has six observation satellites in space. Five of them are optic – Ofek 5, Ofek 7 and Ofek 9, and two from the Eros series (A and B), while the sixth, TecSAR (Ofek 8) is the pride and joy of the defense establishment and a huge cause for concern for other countries in the Middle East: It's a radar-based satellite developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, that is lightweight and can produce three-dimensional imaging of the globe with great resolution and in all types of weather.
The TecSAR was launched from India in January 2008. Contrary to the optic satellites that can transmit pictures from the field only during the day and are dependent on visibility, the radar-based satellite isn't affected by cloud coverage, weather conditions or light: It can supply high resolution photographs at any time, even if the weather is problematic: a foggy, windy night or desert sandstorm. It can also differentiate between hot or cold objects, or between wet and dry ones. "With the launching of TecSAR, we found ourselves in a new world," a defense official says of the satellite.
"Today we can photograph anything we want in Iran, Syria or the Palestinian Authority," Uzi Rubin, one of the original developers of the satellites in Israel and twice winner of the Israel Defense Prize, states proudly.
"Space is like the sea, it's open to everyone so long as they don't use it for hostile activities. Even when a satellite circles over a nation's territory, it does not violate its sovereignty. It can't be used for attack but it is used to pass over things. After all, all ballistic missiles leave the Earth's atmosphere on their way from point to point. There's a desire to change the norm into international law – the European Union is working on writing up a convention that would be binding on everyone."
By the way, nine months ago, when Japan's Fukishima nuclear reactor was damaged in an earthquake and there was a real concern about a radioactive leak, Israel offered Japan satellite photographs of the area. The Japanese declined.
What about developing weapons against satellites? Rubin says that officially, such a thing violates the international norms regarding satellites, and everyone denies they're working on this, but actually everyone is doing so. "China and the U.S. have already destroyed their own satellites using a long-range anti-missile missile, after the satellite went out of order and they didn't want it to crash somewhere on Earth. There were also reports that China managed to 'blind' an American satellite, but no one admitted to it," Rubin says.
A senior Israel Aerospace Industries official told people at a conference at Tel Aviv University that the Arrow 3 missile could have the ability to shoot down satellites, if it became necessary. The defense establishment believes that it's definitely possible that in the future, hostile nations might try to knock down Israeli satellites. Right now that's impossible. However, the Iranians could at least celebrate their knocking down an American spy drone over their territory this week.
On the way to Ofek 10
The defense industries are currently working on developing the 10th generation of Ofek satellites, but whose launch date hasn't been determined. The air force is considering equipping its bases with micro-satellites, which could be launched if and when there's tension in the area. At this year's Ramon space convention, the Rafael Arms Development Authority displayed a plan for micro-satellites that can be quickly launched into space, called a "Lite Sat."
Simultaneously, Israeli companies are still working on developing space cameras for the satellites: Last year Elbit unveiled the new generation of space cameras, Jupiter, which is in the advanced development stage and can detect 50 cm. objects from a cruising height of 600 km.; The Elop factory is developing a multi-spectral camera for a satellite being developed jointly by the Israel and French space agencies called VeNUS; and Israel Aerospace Industries is working on developing the advanced imaging satellite OpSat-3000, which will use the Jupiter.
But satellites also have their drawbacks, and they're incapable of supplying a totally complete picture of any place at any moment. "The information from the satellite doesn't arrive in real time but rather several hours later, sometimes days," explains Rubin. "Its field of vision is narrow. Keep in mind that it sees the place it's told to observe through a hole as tiny as a straw. A satellite passes at eight kilometers a second, so it can't photograph many objects. So it's not like you see everything."
"There's a saying that we can see the bristles on beard on Ahmadinejad," says Inbar. "But that's a false cliché and not a very smart one. No country in the world has a system providing continuous intelligence which tracks objects moving in the field all the time. With a sufficient amount of quality satellites, we can get close."
The problem, says Rubin, was demonstrated in the attempted launching of the Iraqi satellite in 1989. "These were the days following the Iran-Iraq war, and the American satellites were fixed on the launchers throughout Iraq. But in retrospect, it turned out that the satellite was launched from a launcher the Americans didn't know about. This is proof that a satellite can only photograph things that you know about, and instruct it to do. It simply won't supply you with the other information."
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Nonetheless, Israel has something to be proud of. Inbar says: "In the equation between a satellite's performance and its size and price, it looks like we're number one in the world. The space field has become central and vital. Through it you can create intelligence for large-scale infrastructure among them buildings and airports, and as its quality improves, you can also provide information on the level of items on the field."
Not only virtual spies are cruising in space. In addition to the spy satellites, civilian ones provide TV services, GPS instructions for our cars and more – so that they are part of our basic daily activities. These technological miracles could be palpably felt in the operation to liquidate Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan seven months ago: U.S. President Barack Obama sat in the White House situation room with his aides and watched a live broadcast of what was happening in the villa in which the Al-Qaida leader was hiding. They did this with the help of photographs that arrived from the site via satellite communication.
Israel's supremacy when it comes to space is illustrated mainly by looking at the other nations in the region, who are way behind it. Iraq tried to launch a satellite into space in 1989, when then President Saddam Hussein was riding high. Iraq declared that it managed to get the satellite in orbit, but later it turned out that the launch failed. Iran is the only country in the area that succeeded in launching a satellite besides Israel.
"Like every country dependent on oil, the Iranians don't have a money problem, and they are investing a huge amount in this field," says Rubin. "They managed to get satellites in orbit twice, which is a significant achievement, but their launcher is limited and can't carry heavy weight. They're still far from our capabilities, but they could close the gap perhaps by launching from a friendly country. In the end it's a matter of money."
"Iran has a functioning satellite built for it by Russia," adds Inbar, "but it provides material with very low resolution and has no real military or intelligence value."
He notes that there is a close relationship between the Iranian space programs and its plans to develop advanced ground-to-ground missiles. "Today there are six already built satellites in Iran awaiting launching. In addition, a second generation of satellites is being developed now which will have improved photographic resolution.
"Iran has research and developments ties with North Korea, including on satellite launchers. The Iranians have a development plan for a heavy satellite launcher called Simorgh. This launcher can launch satellites weighing 100 kg., and its technology could give them the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles, although such missiles won't be very useful or precise." The other countries in the region don't have satellite abilities. "Saudi Arabia built a communications satellite," Rubin says, "But it also, like the others, won't have this ability in the foreseeable future."
It turns out that one can get help from photographs from space even without investing millions. All you need is an Internet connection. The Palestinian spy satellite is called Google Earth. "Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are proud of the fact that they use Google to aim their rockets," Rubin says, and locates his house in Gedera from a satellite photo within a few seconds of cruising on the Web. "Look, anyone who wants to blow up my house can get the exact location easily and for free. The Iranians have also developed the use of the Internet to an art form. In the end, whoever knows how to use the Web correctly can know exactly where army bases are as well."