Israel launches its Ofek 16 spy satellite early on July 6. (Defense Ministry)

Israel Launches New Spy Satellite

Experts, former industry officials weigh in on country’s military capabilities in space

Israel successfully launched its Ofek 16 reconnaissance satellite early Monday, making this the seventh in its growing space force.

With new satellite photos revealing extensive damage inflicted on the Natanz uranium-enrichment site in Iran by a mysterious explosion, and with some Iranian officials pointing the finger at the country’s Western adversaries, Israel’s military presence in space has taken on added importance in recent days.

The Media Line spoke with current and former officials in the Jewish state’s space program, as well as security experts, about what Monday’s launch could mean for the region.

“To be clear: Israel’s investment in the civilian space industry is extremely low,” said Itzchak Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israeli Space Agency.

“Militarily, we’re doing a little better, but still not very good compared to other countries,” he noted. “Still, we have to remember that in a country like ours, any advancements made in the military sector will be used eventually in the civilian one.”

Since launching its first satellite in 1988 – and becoming just the eighth country to achieve the feat – Israel has launched over 20 civilian and military satellites into space.

According to defense officials, some signals have already been received from the satellite launched Monday morning, and it seems to be functioning properly.

Ofek (Horizon) 16 is an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with “advanced capabilities,” said a statement released by the Defense Ministry.

Asked about the new satellite’s main responsibilities, Ben-Israel stayed tightlipped except to say it is there “to surveil remote areas that we have an interest in. Iran is one example.”

Regarding special equipment Ofek 16 might have, Ben-Israel – who claims to have been in attendance for every Israeli satellite launch – admits that while “its main mission is taking pictures, there are enhancements and additions made all the time. Each one is different and more advanced. No satellite is a direct copy of its predecessor.”

While the project was led and overseen by the government, a handful of private and civilian companies were involved in the design, engineering and assembly of the satellite and its components.

“Israel’s advantage compared to the rest of the world is the cost-benefit ratio it reaches,” a former high-ranking official for Israel Aerospace Industries told The Media Line. “What we can achieve with our satellites – relative to their size and cost – is a lot. That’s a huge advantage globally.”

Israel’s advantage compared to the rest of the world is the cost-benefit ratio it reaches. What we can achieve with our satellites – relative to their size and cost – is a lot. That’s a huge advantage globally

Monday’s launch is meaningful, he said, in that it enables Israel to multiply its reconnaissance abilities.

“The fact that we hold a substantial number of satellites enables us to surveil the same location at a higher frequency. Instead of, say, once a week or once a day, we can now take photos of the same spot several times a day. That’s powerful,” he said.

“When you have one of these,” he added, “you don’t need an air force spy plane that would risk lives, that is limited by fuel and other things, that might not even get there.”

It is widely believed that the new addition to Israel’s space fleet will enable the country to enhance its surveillance and monitoring of any advancements in the Iranian nuclear program.

The former IAI official identified some of the satellite’s possible future missions.

“Iran today is involved in a lot of places – Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Africa, the Persian Gulf. It’s not limited to just Iran anymore.”

Iran today is involved in a lot of places – Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Africa, the Persian Gulf. It’s not limited to just Iran anymore

Nevertheless, Ephraim Kam, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, sees a relatively small intelligence role in Iran for the Israeli space force.

“Most things over there are done underground,” he explained to The Media Line.

Yet he believes the Iranians are concerned.

“That’s one of the reasons they have begun developing their own satellites,” he explained. “They’re advancing all the time. They realize the importance of it – both for reconnaissance purposes and to improve their rocket-launching capabilities.”

In 2009, Iran became the ninth country to place a domestically-built satellite in orbit using its own launch pad. Since then, it has successfully launched three other satellites into space, the latest in April of this year.

Still, Kam doesn’t see a leveled playing field anytime soon.

“They’ve been progressing constantly for decades now,” he said of the Iranians. “In the beginning, they received some outside help, but now they’re pretty independent. We still hold the upper hand, though.”

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