Beyond the Horizon

A rocket capable of putting a satellite in a precise point in space is also capable of being used as a missile to hit a target on earth. This Israel's enemies understand full well, and Ofek-6's failure does not impair this deterrence.

There was no reason for the exaggerations, promises and groundless boasting spread by senior defense establishment officials about the Arrow missile's successful interception of the Scud in the United States. Neither was there any justification for the hue and cry and scary predictions after the failure to launch the Ofek-6 (horizon, in Hebrew) satellite and the Arrow's failure to intercept another ballistic missile a week earlier.

It is not pleasant, of course, to fail twice out of three attempts to launch a satellite. But it's a far cry to go from this to establishing that "this was a hard blow for intelligence," "a blow to Israel's capability to obtain a warning of missiles," etc.

The statements by defense establishment spokespeople after the failure to get Ofek-6 into orbit could have created the impression that this was the end of Israel's capability of gathering full intelligence on Iran. They implied that we would no longer know what the Iranians are developing in their nuclear project, and we will not be able to know, and warn, of the Iranians launching missiles at us. The truth, as expected, is completely different.

There is, of course, an advantage in being able to photograph Iran from space, but this is not enough to ensure the exposure of its nuclear activities. The Ofek's advanced cameras have a high resolution, and it was supposed to send high-quality photographs, but they would not have solved the problem of gathering information about the Iranian nuclear program.

The Americans have been following the Iranians for a long time. They allocate quite a few advanced espionage satellites for this, but repeatedly fail to expose Iran's nuclear activities.

Despite the Americans' satellite capability, which is better than Israel's even if Ofek-6 had entered its orbit, they failed to expose Iran's activity in uranium enrichment facilities at Nantaz, the heavy water production plant at Arak, and the secret laboratory in Tehran's Nuclear Research Center. These were only exposed after exiled Iranians gave the United States information. Therefore, the claim that without Ofek-6 Israel would have no information on the Iranian nuclear program, and that the danger to our security has increased because of this, is groundless.

No less unfounded is the argument that Israel's independent ability to obtain early warning of a sudden ballistic missile attack would be greatly damaged. This ability would not have been achieved even if Ofek-6 had orbited the earth as planned. It would require a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit to detect missile launchings, that is, a satellite that circles the earth at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. Such a satellite is always above a fixed point on earth, and can therefore spy continuously at missile launching sites and expose any launching immediately as it takes place. Such American satellites provided information in real time on the launching of Iraqi missiles in 1991.

Israel does not and probably will not have - for economic reasons - the capability to put satellites of this kind in space. Ofek satellites orbit the earth at an altitude of a just a few hundred kilometers, so they cannot maintain continuous intelligence gathering in one region - they pass over a specific region only once every few hours. Moreover, to locate a ballistic missile launching it is necessary to equip the satellite with sensors that detect the heat signature of the launched missile, which the Ofek satellites do not have.

In addition, for many years there has been an agreement between Israel and the United States whereby the U.S. provides Israel with information from its satellites about missile launchings. According to this agreement, if Israel is in danger of being attacked by missiles, the Americans will allocate geosynchronous satellites for continuous surveillance of the state threatening Israel, and transfer directly to Israel information of any missile being launched toward it. Thus the pretense to create an independent capability "to obtain early warning of ballistic missiles" has no standing.

Israel needs to continue developing and manufacturing satellites, which can improve intelligence ability and provide important information, and failures in such advanced development programs are expected and must not lead to their cancelation.

But just as the defense establishment should not delude the public by promising that it is well protected from a ballistic missile attack just because one experiment with the Arrow succeeded, so it must not tell the public that Ofek-6 satellites are the perfect solution for gathering information on everything that goes on in Iran, and that without them we are in existential danger.

We must remember that what is really important about the missile issue is the message inherent in Israel's capability to launch long-range missiles. According to foreign sources, the Shavit satellite launcher is based on the Jericho ballistic missile. A rocket capable of putting a satellite in a precise point in space is also capable of being used as a missile to hit a target on earth. This Israel's enemies understand full well, and Ofek-6's failure does not impair this deterrence.