IAF satellite tracking center
The IAF’s satellite tracking center at the Palmahim base. Photo by Eyal Assayag
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Missile Testing Unit, at the edge of the Israel Air Force's Palmahim base, has served as the launching pad for Arrow anti-ballistic missiles and, according to foreign reports, the Jericho III missile, which is reportedly capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

But it is Israel's observational satellites, some of which are also launched from the Unit, that have recently grabbed the attention of the top brass. The satellites - there are four government-owned ones and two privately owned ones in orbit, all of whose images are used by Israeli intelligence - take up a large chunk of the multi-year Halamish plan the army is preparing, which is due to come before the cabinet for approval in the next few months.

That's because the satellites, including the Ofek 5, 7 and 9 - the latest of which was launched in June - provide up-to-date images to the Intelligence Corps of the Israel Defense Forces, which takes responsibility for the satellites from the moment they go into orbit and the Israel Aircraft Industries engineers are satisfied with the images being sent back to Earth. The images are used to help Israel keep an eye on sensitive "areas of interest" where planes, whether manned or unmanned, would not be able to go, said the lieutenant colonel who heads the air force's satellite and space unit.

The Associated Press, which calls the Ofek series "spy satellites," has reported that Israel is known to direct satellites over Iran to keep track of its nuclear program.

"Our dream, of course, is up-to-date video images of the area," he said. "But in practice, the fact that we have a satellite that provides us with dozens of frames above an expanse of targets is an extremely valuable asset."

IAF officials are wary of going into too much depth when it comes to describing the abilities of Israeli satellites, but the lieutenant colonel described them as "creating photographic opportunities that enable us to get up-to-date information, to the point of providing a warning on leading operational needs."

But the satellites have their limitations. Of Israel's six satellites, only one - the high-resolution TecSar, which features radar imaging - is capable of transmitting images at night and in poor weather conditions, and the TecSar has a view of those "areas of interest" only once every 90 minutes. In addition, its elliptical orbit means that it goes dark for two weeks of every two months or so.

The air force would like to have enough satellites to keep the Middle East covered well enough that there would be no spot where Israel cannot see what's going on once every 15 minutes.

Unlike the Ofek series satellites, TecSar - along with Eros A and Eros B, which are privately owned by a subsidiary of Israel Aircraft Industries - were launched abroad, from either Russia or India.

But thanks to Unit 151 and the Palmahim base near Tel Aviv, where the Ofek series was launched, Israel is maintaining its ability to independently launch satellites. This allows Israel to conceal some of its abilities from prying eyes at a launch abroad, and to set the launch schedule according to its own needs. To some extent, it can also decide to launch a satellite if there is an urgent operational need.

But a satellite launch does require some planning. Just building the satellite takes at least two years, and preparing for the launch can take close to a year.

"It takes half a year just to plan, and a month and a half before the launch itself," said the IAF officer and veteran engineer in charge of Unit 151. "And then we have four or five general practices, and dozens of staff training sessions."

Getting the satellite into orbit is like conducting "a huge orchestra that's all playing together," he said. And just as in an actual music hall, there's a balcony. But instead of the season ticket-holders, those looking on are the IAF commander, the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and sometimes the prime minister.

The musicians go silent just before launch.

"In the last 20 minutes," added the officer and engineer, "there's this quiet, combined with tension that you can cut with a knife."