Israel expands space effort, EU ties

By Martin Sieff
Published July 1, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Israel has revealed plans to expand its recently created military space command and massively boost its reconnaissance satellite capabilities.

The plans are an obvious response to Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons, but they also look like bringing Israel far closer to Europe at a time when its military ties with the United States are increasingly strained.

The Tel Aviv daily Yediot Aharonot, which has long had excellent sources in the Israeli military and aerospace communities, reported Thursday that the Israeli Air Force planned to launch far more surveillance satellites into orbit to boost its intelligence capabilities against what the newspaper described as distant enemy countries.

That is widely believed by observers of Israeli military policymaking to refer primarily to Iran. Its new hard-line president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Sunday that Tehran would press ahead with its controversial nuclear program.

Israel said in May that it expected Iran to have the technological capabilities within six to nine months to build nuclear bombs, which could easily reach the Jewish state.

The Israeli Air Force established a space branch in 2003 to expand its air capabilities. It current operates a wide variety of planes, helicopters, drones and anti-tank missile defense systems to track terrorists and observe their activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel already conducts short-range surveillance of neighboring countries through its Ofek spy satellite system developed by Israel Aircraft Industries and the commercially available images from the Earth Remote Observation Satellite, owned by ImageSat International N.V.

But now "a foundry in the town of Ashdod is currently developing a 'next generation' satellite that can observe a wider range and can produce up-to-the-minute images taken at night, through fog or through a sandstorm -- a common weather occurrence in the deserts of Gulf states," Israeli reporter Aryeh Egozy wrote in Yediot Aharonot.

"The space system is turning into a central part of the Air Force infrastructure," an Israeli security source told the paper. "The dependence on space is becoming enormous."

According to the report, Israel even plans to manufacture micro-satellites that could provide information about combat zones, which could be fired from planes and would therefore eliminate the need for heavy ground launchers.

However, so far, Israel's space ambitions have outrun its capabilities. The launch of the Ofek-6 spy satellite last September, intended to boost the Jewish state's surveillance over Iran turned into a costly failure when the launcher carrying it -- developed by a consortium of high-tech industries including Israel Military Industries, Rafael, Elbit Systems and Elisra -- crashed into the sea shortly after liftoff.

In the past, Israel's military top brass have often been frustrated by the reluctance of U.S. administrations and Pentagon officials to share with them what the Israelis regard as crucial U.S. satellite surveillance intelligence on Arab countries in real time.

That has not been a concern up to now under President George W. Bush. Israeli-U.S. military ties, fostered by highly sympathetic top civilian Department of Defense officials under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have given Israeli officers unprecedented access over the past four and a half years.

But there are many signs that this honeymoon may be ending, or at least cooling down somewhat. Two of the key U.S. officials who pushed it have either left or are believed to be about to leave the Pentagon.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the relentless driving force behind the Iraq war, left the Pentagon a few months ago to take over the World Bank. His right hand man, Under Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith, said earlier this year he would leave his job over the summer and is expected to do so in July or August.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are furious over alleged Israeli sales of advanced technology originally received from the United States to China.

And relations have been further strained by an FBI probe that has targeted Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two long-time senior officials of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, for allegedly passing on to Israeli officials classified Department of Defense intelligence they received from a sympathetic Pentagon official Larry Franklin.

Rosen and Weissman have been terminated by AIPAC and both men may face grand jury indictments.

In this climate, Israel is quietly but energetically cultivating its space tech ties to the European Union.

The Israelis have eagerly signed on to cooperate with the European Union's ambitious Galileo satellite system program designed to challenge the long-established dominance of the U.S. Global Positioning System, better known by its acronym, GPS.

Galileo is planned to go into service in 2008 with 30 satellites in orbit, most of them for civilian uses. Both Israel and China have eagerly signed on to cooperate with it.

Just this past Monday, the Galileo joint undertaking body set up by the European Union's ruling European Commission and the European Space Agency, awarded the construction of the Galileo missiles, satellites and supporting systems to two giant consortiums: iNavSat that includes the dominant European aerospace giant EADS, the French Thales company and the British Inmarsat satellite communications group, and Eurely, composed of France's Alcatel, Italy's Alcatel and Spain's AENA and Hispasat.

The United States remains by far Israel's number one supporter and ally in high tech and military space weapons development, as well as in much else. But the Israeli eagerness to join Galileo, which is designed to challenge a keystone of U.S. civil space preeminence suggests a sense among Israeli military planners that the honeymoon might not last forever.