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Sword From The Heavens
Satellites in the Middle East
by Peter I. Galace

The Middle East is definitely a more dangerous place these days and, depending upon your point of view, satellites have played key roles in either creating this dangerous instability, or in preventing a nuclear war from breaking out.

Consider the following:
  • Unconfirmed, but persistent, reports state eight Israeli fighter bombers launched a night attack on a nuclear facility inside Syria on September 5th to prevent the processing of weapons grade plutonium supplied to Syria by North Korea and destined for Iran. Such a night attack could only have been possible with the aid of GPS (Global Positioning System) and GPS guided bombs. U.S. satellites probably confirmed the location of the Syrian nuclear facility that was producing the material for nuclear weapons. Neither Israel or the United States confirm, or denies, the attack or other involvement.
  • In a rare show of technological braggadocio, Iran claims to be using “highly advanced satellite technology” to monitor U.S. troop movements in neighboring Iraq. Iran has only one in-orbit spy satellite (the 170kg Sina-1 launched by Russia in 2005 and ostensibly an earth resources satellite), but this carries two low-resolution cameras. This means Iran must be using the satellite of a third party provider, perhaps Russia or commercially available satellite imagery, to spy on U.S. forces in Iraq, and probably provide intelligence to Iraqi insurgents.
  • Israel will launch its Polaris/TechSAR satellite soon, its most advanced radar imaging spy satellite, to keep tabs on Iran and its nuclear facilities. Israel orbited an advanced photoreconnaissance satellite, Ofeq-7, only last June to spy on Iran and Syria. India will launch the Polaris/TechSAR satellite on one of its PSLVs (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles).
  • Saudi Arabia has acquired satellite guided, U.S.-made JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) guidance kits that transform iron or “dumb” bombs into smart bombs, thanks to GPS guidance. JDAM bombs can weigh from 500 to 2000 lbs. Saudi Arabia is the only Middle East country other than Israel that carries JDAM smart bombs in its arsenal. Pakistan and Egypt have pending requests for JDAMs. Satellite guided JDAMs have an accuracy, as measured by circular error probability (CEP), of 13 meters or less.
  • The U.S.-made “Excalibur” 155mm GPS guided artillery round deployed to Iraq assassinated Abu Jurah, a top al-Qaeda leader, who was meeting other terrorists in a building south of Baghdad. Two Excalibur rounds took out Jurah and 14 others last July. It was the first publicized success for Excalibur, the world’s first satellite guided artillery shell to be used in combat. Excalibur, fired from the new U.S. M777 howitzer, has a CEP of six meters and a range of 30 km.
More Israeli satellites
By offering a “god’s-eye view” of surface activity day or night, in good weather or bad, today’s military satellites provide real-time intelligence that tends to prolong peace in a region as explosive as the Middle East.

As the rumored raid by Israel into Syria has shown, satellites might just have helped snuff out the threat of a nuclear war by depriving Iran of weapons grade plutonium necessary in manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Israel today counts on two-photoreconnaissance satellite to stand watch over its neighbors, Iran and Syria, as well as “watch” other points of interest in the Middle East.

Partnering the recently launched Ofeq-7 is Ofeq-5. The Ofeq vehicles are high-resolution imaging satellites used solely for military intelligence. The 300 kg Ofeq-7 went into orbit last June to fill the gap in the coverage of distant high-priority areas in the Middle East including Iran.

Israel then intends to loft Amos-3, its third military communications satellite, later this year. Following the launch of Polaris/TechSAR comes Ofeq-8, a new type of satellite. The Amos-4 communications satellite is also up for launch.

The next generation Israeli spy satellites (starting with Ofeq-8) will carry new high-resolution cameras that feature greatly improved imaging without significantly increasing the weight of the spacecraft. It will employ PAN (panchromatic) and MS imaging cameras and PAN-sharpening functions.

The use of Israel’s homegrown Shavit launch vehicle to launch Ofeq-7 also has greater significance: it was a signal to Iran that its entire territory was within the range of Shavit, which is a nuclear capable ballistic missile in its military configuration.

Preceding the Ofeq-7 launch were three successful launches in February and March, kept under wraps by a news blackout. Russia is said to have reacted to these secret Israeli spy satellites by orbiting a new Cosmos spy satellite to keep closer watch on Israel.

Israel stepped up its satellite spying following a Knesset report that confirmed the vital contribution of satellite imagery to reliable intelligence. The parliamentary report included a recommendation to expedite Israel’s espionage satellite development “as a long-term visual intelligence infrastructure in the regional strategic balance”.

Iran is a leading target for Israel’s enhanced satellite spying campaign. Israeli analysts said Israeli military intelligence places the highest priority on the detailed monitoring of Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the development of long-range weapons delivery systems such as the Iris launch vehicle.

High-resolution satellite imagery has become one of Israel’s major intelligence assets, hence the appearance of Ofeq-7, Ofeq-8, Polaris/TechSAR and Amos-3 and -4.

Some of the technologies used by Israeli spy satellites include multi-spectral (MS) imagery, which captures images in different wavelengths, including color. Analysis of images at different wavelengths can reveal the presence of hidden objects.

Dual use satellites
Described by some military analysts as spy satellites, the two in-orbit Israeli Eros satellites—Eros A and Eros B—are owned and operated by the Israeli company, ImageSat International. These “dual use” satellites complement Israeli military satellites in keeping watch on the Middle East.

Eros A carries a high-resolution camera capable of discerning objects 1.8 meters across while the newer Eros B can identify objects 70 centimeters across and is now used to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Each of the satellites passes over Israel and neighboring states four times a day.

Eros A has a planned lifespan of 10 years in orbit and is scheduled to remain in service until 2010, when it will be replaced by the more advanced Eros C.

Smaller and better
Israel also intends to upgrade the quality of its future spy satellites by taking the lead in developing what are considered the next generation nanosatellites (10 kg) and microsatellites (100 kg).

These new satellites will be launched from specially configured Israeli jets in much the same way air-to-air missiles are launched. Scientists at Rafael and Israel’s Armament Development Authority are examining technology to upgrade existing missiles with more powerful engines and install microsatellites in their noses. Israel expects to have these small satellites available by 2008, but first for civilian use. Israel’s defense industry will build these small satellites.

The increasing popularity of miniaturized satellites corresponds to a U.S. new strategic concept, the “Operationally Responsive Space” initiative. This plan attempts to give the U.S. the ability to quickly launch appropriately configured satellites in a matter of months instead of years, as is the norm today, in response to an emergency situation. Hence the U.S. interest in Polaris/TechSAR, which is a small satellite weighing just 360kg.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), builder of TechSAR-1, last April was reported to have reached an agreement with Northrop Grumman Space Technology that gives the U.S. company rights to sell modified versions of the spacecraft to the Pentagon. IAI and Northrop Grumman hope a successful launch of Polaris/TechSAR will increase the Pentagon’s interest in miniaturized satellites.

Northrop is attempting to convince the White House to include funding for TechSAR clones in its 2009 budget request to Congress. If this program is approved, initial plans call for IAI to ship the basic platform to be modified at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in California.

The Pentagon plans to demonstrate the concept by launching a series of experimental Tactical Satellites, or TacSats, and conducting military simulations and field exercises. The first of those satellites, TacSat-2, was launched in December 2006.

Northrop Grumman said TechSAR fits the bill for Operationally Responsive Space. It said TechSAR-1 is an operational system that can be built, from the time receipt of order, in 28 months.

The Challenge From Iran
The launch of the Russian-made Sina-1 (or Mesbah, meaning lantern) marked the start of Iran’s accelerated space program, said Israeli analysts. A second satellite, this one made by Iran, is expected in 2008. Iran is known to have developed a satellite launch vehicle of the Shahab family similar to North Korea’s Taepodong 2 missile, also named Iris.

Iran officially declared its space ambitions in 2003 with the announcement it would launch its first satellite with a home-produced booster rocket within 18 months. This was the Russian-built Sina-1, which carries two cameras and communication equipment. Although Iran claims Sina-1 is designed to locate and monitor natural resources and perform similar missions, Israeli and U.S. intelligence sources believe the satellite is part of Iran’s future military space program.

Israel has often warned that the Iranian space program is being used as camouflage to allow Iran to develop its long-range ballistic missile program without nuclear non-proliferation treaty restrictions. Analysts said Iran achieved its significant missile technology know-how through its cooperation with North Korea. An advanced Iranian version of the Shahab-3 ballistic missile appears capable of either carrying satellites or a nuclear warhead.

Powers In The Middle East
Israel and Iran are the Middle East’s leading space powers. They are also enemies, and that is to be regretted as advances in their space programs now have roots in their overarching need to gain military advantage.

But let’s not forget that Iraq—yes, Iraq—was the first Muslim country and the 10th nation on Earth to successfully orbit a satellite. Iraq achieved this feat on December 5, 1989 with a satellite launched from the Al-Anbar Space Research Center 50 miles west of Baghdad. The rocket is said to have been a modified version of Argentina’s Condor ballistic missile.

Other Middle East countries might soon duplicate Iraq’s feat (Saudi Arabia is a prime candidate) thereby complicating the Middle East equation.

As it stands now, however, satellites guard the peace in the Middle East. That peace must continue.

In addition to working as the Asia Editor for SatMagazine, Peter I. Galace writes extensively on telecommunications developments in Asia for numerous, international publications. He is the co-author of “Heavens Fill with Commerce,” a brief history of the satellite communications industry, published in the United States.