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Are Israel’s eyes in the skies at risk?

Widespread layoffs due to the COVID-19 crisis could pose a risk to flagship projects, like Israel’s satellites, that give it a strategic advantage in the volatile Middle East.

Israel’s “Ofek 16” satellite. Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries.
Israel’s “Ofek 16” satellite. Credit: Israel Aerospace Industries.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

The coronavirus crisis might have pushed Monday’s launch of Israel’s “Ofek 16” spy satellite off the front page, but make no mistake: This is a major coup for the country’s defense establishment and scientific community.

This isn’t the first time Israel has put a satellite in orbit, but it should be noted that the launch was particularly successful. Everything went exactly as planned: The launch pad at Palmachim Air Force Base was ready, the launcher (a “Shavit” model, which according to foreign media reports was designed to launch ballistic missiles) functioned flawlessly, the satellite’s orbital insertion went off without a hitch, and all data points to it being fully operational.

“Ofek 16” is supposed to transmit its first images from space over the next few days. After that, it will be declared operational and take its place in Israel’s family of satellites, which already includes two optic and two radar satellites. It will allow Israel to increase its geographic coverage of various targets and essentially provide near-constant surveillance of them.

Like its predecessor, the “Ofek 11,” the new satellite is equipped with a powerful camera that can transmit very high-resolution images.

This satellite series (“Etgar C”) is considered successful and capable of impressive performance, but “Ofek 16” marks the end of the current generation of these spacecraft, as well as the end of Israel Aerospace Industries’ role as the country’s sole manufacturer of reconnaissance satellites. The next generation of spy satellites will be smaller, weighing some 50 kilograms (110 pounds) rather than the current 350 kilograms (772 pounds), and will be built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

This is a major coup for the defense establishment and scientific community.

The successful launch on July 6 might seem natural to anyone unfamiliar with the field, but it’s far from natural. From the westerly launch to avoid entanglement with any foreign entities and meeting the predetermined schedule in the face of endless possible problems, to the perfect result—all point to capabilities very few world powers have. Iran, for example, which only recently boasted about a successful Iranian-built satellite, has yet to produce any images taken by it, and it’s not clear how well the satellite is functioning, if at all.

But along with satisfaction at the launch, it was hard not to notice the concern in the defense establishment and defense industry on Monday. Lacking a multi-year plan and an appropriate budget, and as the coronavirus crisis continues to wreak havoc, the future of Israel’s satellite program is in danger. Extensive layoffs planned in the defense industry and the lack of economic stability could pose a threat to the future of flagship projects such as the satellites, which give Israel a strategic edge over its regional enemies and rivals.

Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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