Somewhere Beyond the Horizon

Amnon Barzilai
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Amnon Barzilai

"We will establish the Israeli space agency and have Prof. Yuval Neeman head it," was the decision that was made during the course of a closed meeting at the end of 1982. The principal decision makers, or individuals who were made privy to the secret, included then prime minister Menachem Begin, then defense minister Ariel Sharon and the former director-general of the Defense Ministry, Brigadier General (res.) Aharon Beit Halahmi. The principal, underlying purpose of the creation of the agency was to provide a framework within which to pursue the program to develop the Ofeq satellite and the Shavit satellite launcher.

Prof. Neeman, the head of the Tehiya (Revival) movement and a member of the Knesset at the time, was also involved in the decision. In his capacity as minister of science and, above all, as a world-renowned physicist, Neeman was well aware of the significance of the program. He, therefore, agreed to act as the chairman of the board of the agency. "It was a move that proved itself over the years," says one of the researchers who has been involved in the space project since the 1980s.

The brain behind the program was Prof. Haim Eshed, from the Asher Space Research Center at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. Reports abroad have named Eshed as the director of the space agency's projects and he is considered the father of the Israeli space program.

Israel made its breakthrough into space exactly 13 years ago, on September 19, 1988, joining the exclusive club of seven other countries with satellite-launching capability. The operation was a project of the Israel Space Agency and the initials ISA (in their Hebrew equivalent) appeared on the launcher. The Ofeq 1 imaging satellite, which was borne aloft by a Shavit launcher, rocketed into space and began to orbit the Earth. The project had the support and blessing of the defense establishment.

But today, the Ofeq ("horizon" in Hebrew) directorate at the Defense Ministry is planning the launch of the future imaging satellites. If all goes well, Ofeq 5 will be launched into space in a few months, and will replace Ofeq 3, which is no longer functioning. The new satellite is intended to extend Israel's strategic early-warning capabilities and to reduce its dependence on the photography services of civilian satellites that are operated by commercial firms - one Israeli and the other foreign-based.

The first obstacle

In mid-1979, it was Israel's limited, strategic early-warning depth that led the head of Military Intelligence at the time, Major General Yehoshua Saguy, to request a meeting with then defense minister Ezer Weizman and the chief of staff at the time, Rafael Eitan. Saguy told the country's two top defense figures that the peace treaty Israel had signed with Egypt on March 29, 1979, had created a problem for Military Intelligence. "I assume that we will need early-warning capabilities even in peacetime," he said. "However, you don't send war planes with cameras on reconnaissance missions over countries with which we have signed a peace treaty."

The only solution, Saguy said, was a photography satellite. Israel would thus be able to bypass the political obstacle and take pictures over all countries, without generating diplomatic and other problems. Weizman and Eitan were not enthusiastic. "Have you done a feasibility study?" Weizman asked. Saguy replied that he had not. For a while, the initiative seemed to have died - as it had done so in the past.

The frequency of reconnaissance flights over Egypt and Syria had declined since the War of Attrition at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. The SA-2 and SA-3 missile batteries that the Soviet Union had supplied deterred the Israel Air Force from flying deep into Egyptian and Syrian territory. The concern for the safety of the pilots and the aircraft provided the major push toward the development of unmanned drones. However, the situation was aggravated after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

In the wake of the separation-of-forces talks with Egypt and Syria, as part of the interim agreements, new instructions were laid down concerning aerial photography policy. Every reconnaissance flight over Syria and Egypt now required the authorization of the prime minister. The new stipulation was introduced by Yitzhak Rabin, during his first term of office as prime minister (1974-1977). The reason for the new directive was primarily political: The government did not want a diplomatic row over reconnaissance flights to become a pretext for the Arab side to break off the talks. Rabin's instruction became the custom and remained in force after the Likud took power in May 1977.

The director of Military Intelligence who preceded Saguy, Major General Shlomo Gazit, consulted Prof. Yuval Neeman about the problem. In the mid-1970s, Neeman, a former deputy director of Military Intelligence, served as a special adviser to then defense minister Shimon Peres. Neeman: "Rabin's order created a situation in which air force planes had to make do with diagonal photographs, which are not as good."

In January 1976, Neeman prepared an unpleasant surprise for Rabin. At the time, Rabin was visiting the United States as the guest of the U.S. Congress and he described what happened in his autobiography. The late prime minister was pressed hard by embarrassing questions concerning the arms procurement request that Israel had submitted to the United States, as well as the question of why Israel needed a satellite system costing a billion dollars.

"I had no answer apart from the one that was both serious and overt: We don't need a system like that. And that was my frank reply," Rabin wrote, adding that the defense package Israel had requested from the United States had also included other off-the-wall items that had been "the product of Prof. Yuval Neeman's imagination."

Gazit: "I was the one who submitted the request to purchase satellites from the United States to Yuval because the air force was refraining from photographing enemy areas, with the exception of Lebanon. But we did only superficial work: Beyond making the request, we did nothing."

Some four years later, Saguy delved into the subject more deeply. At the time, Military Intelligence had a huge budget of around $500 million, out of which $5 million had been earmarked for a feasibility study on the production of satellite launchers, satellites and telescopic cameras by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), the Arms Development Authority (Rafael) and El-Op Electro-Optic Industries. The three units were asked to complete the study within ten months. In the meantime, Saguy appointed a project head to lead the satellite project in Military Intelligence. With Saguy's authorization, a meeting was set up between the project head and then defense minister Ezer Weizman. Years later, the head of the project would say that Weizman had been the first obstacle, but that he had also given the satellite project a chance. Seeking a second opinion, Weizman asked the project head to present his program to Colonel (res.) Emanuel Pratt, who built the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Pratt gave his blessing.

Ambition steps in

Another station along the way was a meeting with Dov Raviv, the director of Malam, a systems engineering unit in IAI. By the end of the 1970s, though, Raviv had already made a name for himself within the defense establishment: In 1966, for example, The New York Times reported that Israel had signed a secret agreement with France to acquire an intermediate-range surface-to-surface missile. Then, in 1989, a year after the launch of Ofeq 1, the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies reported that the Shavit missile launcher was the platform for Israel's Jericho surface-to-surface missile. A few years later, in 1996, Dassault, the French aerospace company, exposed the story of the two-stage Jericho missile it had developed for Israel, based on an agreement signed in 1963. According to foreign reports, which appeared about a year after France had clamped an embargo on the sale of arms to Israel, the development and manufacturing of the missile was assigned to Malam.

Raviv was asked whether his plant was capable of developing and manufacturing a rocket launcher. Another question was whether Malam could also manufacture a satellite capable of transmitting photographs with a resolution that would facilitate the identification of any object larger than three meters. Raviv said that the launch capability of the rocket would enable a satellite weighing 250 kilograms to be lifted into space and then circle the earth in a low orbit.

Thus began the collaboration, which would continue for some 10 years. Raviv felt that he held all the cards, as there was no way to talk about a satellite without a rocket to launch it; and there was no way that another country or a private organization would agree to launch an Israeli spy satellite.

The ambitious Raviv wanted Malam to become Israel's missile and satellite firm. The management of IAI, however, had other ideas. For them, the results of the feasibility study commissioned by Military Intelligence arrived at an opportune moment. The revolution fomented by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the fall of the Shah in February 1979 had put an end to the cooperation between Israel and Iran on the development of advanced weapons systems. One of the victims of this turn of events was IAI's MBT plant in the city of Yehud, outside Tel Aviv. At the beginning of 1980, the head of the plant's unit for developing sea-to-sea missiles, Dr. Moshe Barlev, whose team had been left without work in the wake of the revolution in Iran, was asked to conduct a feasibility study on the building of satellites. His deputy was Dr. Patrick Rosenbaum, head of the missile control and guided bombs unit.

The rumor of a fascinating new secret project spread like wildfire through MBT and the team was soon set up. Barlev: "None of us knew anything about space. Each member of the group had to learn the subject for himself, from books and periodicals on things like materials in space, the mechanics of space orbits, heat transference in space and so forth." However, Raviv didn't take this development lying down. He asked Gabi Birin, a physicist at Malam, to set up a team of engineers who would draw up a preliminary plan for a imaging satellite.

While all this was going on, a group of scientists at Rafael was working on the feasibility study. No one imagined that a quarrel over the implementation of the Ofeq project, involving the development of a satellite and a launcher, would delay the program and postpone the first launch for three years.

American concerns

Saguy, who was head of Military Intelligence when the spy satellite project was set in motion, was the only head who came up through the ranks of the Intelligence branch; hence, his special attitude toward aerial photographs. His approach was: "What you see with the eye is the best information."

The visual picture has a clear-cut advantage over other methods of intelligence gathering. In contrast to tapping telephone lines, which can be scrambled, or listening in to electronic signals, which are open to deception, there are no ways to distort what the lens of the camera picks up. An experienced reader of photographs can distinguish between a genuine weapons system and a dummy. The major limitation of a photograph is that it cannot attest to the enemy's intention.

The operational request made to the IAI and Rafael in connection with the satellite project stemmed from the needs of Military Intelligence, which demanded the ability to photograph objects measuring 1.5 meters in size. At such a level of separation, it's possible to distinguish between a truck and a tank. The prevailing view at Military Intelligence was that in light of the financial constraints, which would dictate the size of the launcher, it would be possible to come up with a small satellite weighing no more than 80 kilograms. The target date for the first launch of the satellite was 1986.

In an interview to the Washington Post (May 19, 1984), Saguy, who maintained close ties with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, William Casey, related that in one of their meetings, he had been brash enough to ask for help in the form of the Americans' satellite photographs. The Americans had developed a huge satellite (HK-11), equipped with one-ton cameras, which transmitted photographs with a resolution of 20 centimeters. However, Saguy's good relations with Casey were not enough and the CIA director balked. He explained that the satellite photographs taken by the United States were a national resource not to shared with any other country.

On June 7, 1981, Israel bombed and destroyed Iraq's Osirac nuclear reactor. The United States provided no assistance for the mission, and the Israel Air Force had to come up with aerial photographs of the reactor from another source. However, a crack later emerged in the wall of the U.S. opposition, and Washington subsequently agreed to come through with photographs of the reactor from their store of shots taken from space. The Israelis who viewed the photographs were overwhelmed by their quality. Then came the disappointment. The American attitude, together with the lessons that were learned from the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear installation, reinforced the view of Military Intelligence that it would be wrong to rely on the Americans and that it was, therefore, essential to continue with the project of developing the satellite and the launcher.

The foreign client

In May 1980, Ezer Weizman resigned as defense minister; thereupon, then prime minister Menachem Begin assumed the defense portfolio and held it until the elections of July 1981. At the end of 1980, following the completion of the preliminary stage of the feasibility study, Saguy asked Begin for the go-ahead to proceed to the next phase of the project. The financial problem now arose for the first time. The cost of the project was estimated at around $250 million. "But you know what a first estimate means - it's obvious that you have to multiply it by four. So we were talking about a project that would cost about $1 billion," says a source who was involved in the decision-making process.

Begin convened a meeting for a comprehensive discussion on the budget for space enterprise. IAI found a "foreign client" that was prepared to participate in the funding of the project; and in such a manner, managed to submit an offer that was much cheaper than the one submitted by Rafael. The agreement reached with the foreign client allowed for a more generous budget to build a larger launcher. The arrangement meant that the project could be financed from outside the defense budget.

The secret agreement held fast throughout the development of the satellite project. On July 14, 1994, then defense minister of South Africa, Joe Modise, revealed details of the collaboration that had taken place between Israel and South Africa on the development of missile technology. The security ties between the two countries began in the early 1970s and intensified through the following decade, with South Africa replacing Iran as the major client of Israeli weapons systems. Toward the end of the 1980s, Israel had some $2.3 billion worth of signed contracts with the South African Defense Ministry.

Rafael victorious over IAI

The appointment of Ariel Sharon as defense minister following the 1981 elections meant that the satellite project required renewed authorization. Sharon, like his predecessors, Begin and Weizman (despite initial misgivings), supported the project. Sharon, though, implemented a reform in the structure of Research and Development (R&D) unit of the defense establishment, choosing to add to it the administrations of projects that had hitherto operated autonomously. The head of R&D, Aharon Beit Halahmi, was named director-general of the Defense Ministry, while the director-general of Rafael, Dr. Ben Zion Naveh, was appointed to head the Arms and Technological Infrastructures Development Administration. The personnel shake-up in the Defense Ministry would have implications for the competition between Rafael and IAI over which agency would take the lead in the satellite project.

The management of IAI decided that its MBT division, under the team led by Moshe Barlev, would lead the development of the satellite. At the beginning of 1982, a recommendation entitled "Ofeq Program" was submitted for developing an observation satellite. The program included timetables and preplanning for a ground station, and laid out budget estimates and personnel requirements. The team also built a model of the satellite. The recommendation was to develop the satellite independently, without relying on foreign know-how, so as to avoid having to rely on foreign sources and to enable flexibility and creativity.

IAI was bitterly disappointed, however, when Beit Halahmi and Naveh decided that Rafael would serve as the chief contractor for the development of the satellite. The launcher would be developed by Malam. The two large engines of the Shavit rocket would be built at Israel Military Industry (IMI)'s Giveon plant, while a third engine would be developed by Rafael.

At the same time, the Defense Ministry presented one condition to Rafael: The IAI's MBT division would be subcontractor on the project. This condition would turn out to be highly problematic for Rafael.

Barak versus the satellite

Following Ariel Sharon's resignation as defense minister, in February 1983 (in the wake of the conclusions of the Kahan Commission of Inquiry, which investigated the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps half a year earlier during the Lebanon War), Moshe Arens took over the defense portfolio. Once again, the project was shaken up. Not because of Arens, though - there was no need to convince him of the importance of developing an observation satellite. As the former chief engineer of IAI, Arens viewed the satellite and launcher project as a national mission. This time, the problem lay with the director of Military Intelligence.

Saguy stepped down from the post in August 1983, after four-and-a-half years on the job. To replace him, Arens appointed one of the most promising officers in the Israel Defense Forces, Major General Ehud Barak. Barak disputed the importance of the project, arguing that Military Intelligence and the IDF had no need for imaging satellites. The photographs taken by the air force were sufficient, he said, even if they were taken from Israeli air space at an angle.

Arens: "The moment Ehud said they didn't need it, there was no IDF budget with which to continue the work. That was a syndrome in the IDF. The senior commanders were afraid of development budgets. They thought the main loser would be the army. They didn't understand that we were out to create a force multiplier for the IDF that would provide the kind of superiority and qualitative advantage that is possible only if development is carried out in Israel."

Still, the satellite was supposed to supply strategic early-warning capabilities and Military Intelligence was supposed to submit the operational request. Because Barak was against the project, there was no operational request from the IDF. The entire project appeared to be doomed.

(Part one of a two-part piece)