Closed Air Corridors, Open Space
The launch of Israel's Ofek 9 spy satellite from its Palmachim Air Base on the Mediterranean coast Tuesday night, June 22 had two unusual features of especial interest to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources:
A. The previous six launches of the Ofek series were kept well-hidden from the public and from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence agencies; only when they proved successful were they officially announced and a few photographs released. This time, the Israeli Air Force and Ofek's manufacturers, Israel Aviation Industries went to great lengths to make it highly visible to Israelis living along the densely-populated coast.
The three-stage ballistic missile boosted the advanced remote-sensing satellite, weighing about 650 pounds (300 kilograms) in such a way that instead of flying west over the Mediterranean, it first flew north, leaving a huge, 150-kilometer trail of fire and smoke in the night sky above all of Israel's coastal cities. Only when it was over Netanya, did it swing west, gain altitude and go into orbit at a 40 degree angle to the equator. There it began performing its function of upgrading Israel's intelligence-gathering and monitoring in the entire Middle East, including Iran's nuclear sites, and the southern hemisphere.
The launch was therefore witnessed by millions of Israelis and West Bank Palestinians before the official announcement was released.
B. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Ofek 9 was moved up four months before its scheduled launch in the fall of 2010 for five reasons:
Stopping an intelligence breach revealed by the Turkish flotilla
1. Israeli intelligence was found seriously wanting on May 31, when what should have been an uncomplicated commando raid of a Turkish Gaza-bound civilian vessel went badly awry. It ended in an unforeseen battle on deck with nine Turks dead and six Israel soldiers wounded and the most damaging diplomatic fallout Israel had experienced in years.
2. The conclusion reached was that hostile Iranian undercover entities had managed to breach or find a hole in Israel's intelligence system. This was brought to light by the failure to detect the preparations in Turkey for the blockade-busting flotilla for Gaza. Clearly, Israel intelligence, while maintaining a close eye on Iran, its nuclear facilities and Revolutionary Guard bases, was missing out on other parts of the Middle East.
This oversight enabled Iran, Syria and Hizballah to hide military preparations for attacking Israel in remote and unforeseen locations such as Turkey, keep it unawares and then pounce unexpectedly.
Israel's pretext that it did not engage in undercover surveillance of "friendly" nations who were NATO members did not wash with Western intelligence experts because, as they all know, even friends often spy on each other
3. The May 31 debacle shocked Israel into the realization that the smallest port or air facility tucked away in the Middle East that were never before of interest to its intelligence services must now be brought under its purview. In Turkey, local informers could not longer be relied upon. A system was vitally needed for obtaining intelligence data by the fastest and most direct route, i.e., by satellite.
Some of these considerations were candidly revealed on Thursday, June 24 by Israeli Knesset Member Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, who prior to entering political life headed the Israel Defense Forces' Weapons Development Division and is an authority on missiles and satellites.
He said: "Now, after the launch of Ofek 9, no Middle East country will be able to perform covert operations at moments when our satellites are somewhere else, because there will be no more such moments. We'll be there at all times. Neither Iran nor any other country will be able to move any type of material without our knowing."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources say that Ben-Yisrael's comments will be spot on when all Ofek 9's systems are fully functioning. But this will not happen for another at two to three weeks, i.e., in mid-July.
Ofek 9 shows Tehran Israel does not need air corridors to bomb its nuclear sites
4. The Turkish flotilla episode produced another unpleasant shock: Parts of Middle East air space were abruptly slammed shut to the Israeli Air Force.
On Wednesday, June 16, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan convened his Defense Industry Implementation Committee, known as SSIK, for a series of decisions. One was to freeze 16 defense and military agreements signed between Israel and Turkey, including permission for Israeli military jets to use Turkish air space, the sharing of intelligence and cooperation in counterterrorism.
Tehran and Damascus could now breathe easy, rid of their fear of an Israeli air strike coming from the direction of Turkey.
Much encouraged, Tehran and Damascus began leaning on other governments to follow suit, thereby generating a plethora of news reports in the world media about the air corridors Israel needs for its Air Force to attack Iran.
The most prominent was a London Times report on Saturday, June 19, according to which Saudi Arabia had practiced standing down its anti-aircraft systems to allow Israeli warplanes to fly overhead on their way to attack Iran's nuclear installations through a narrow air corridor left open in the north.
This leak had one purpose, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report, and that was to embarrass Riyadh into following in Ankara's wake and declaring its skies closed to Israel.
It worked like a charm. Before the end of the day, the Saudi princes declared Israeli bombers would never be permitted to cross its airspace to bomb Iran.
Certain, too, that the Obama administration would not let Israeli bomber jets have an air corridor through Iraq, Tehran was patting itself on the back for succeeding by dint of the Turkish flotilla episode in closing off all of Israel's air routes to Iran.
Israel is now interested in the PKK
For this reason, the launch of Ofek 9, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report, had to take place now and produce a big bang. It was necessary to show Tehran as graphically as possible that Israel does not need air corridors to attack its nuclear sites, because its launchers and missiles can insert satellites or warheads 400 kilometers into space and from there accurately pinpoint any location in Iran.
Tehran went to extreme lengths to close Middle East skies to Israeli bombers, only to be shown that Israel has the answer: the free use of space.
5. Another of the low-priority areas in which Israeli intelligence, goaded by its break with Turkey, is taking a fresh interest is the triangle in northern Iraq between Turkey and Iran, where the Kurdish PKK rebels maintain bases for their cross-border raids in Turkey.
The Turkish prime minister is using the upsurge in PKK attacks to justify his campaign against Israel, accusing its covert agents of secretly aiding rebel operations against Turkish military targets.
However, Erdogan's opponents, especially his critics in the Turkish military and intelligence community, accuse him of neglecting the war on the PKK because of his over-preoccupation with slamming Israel.
In these circumstances, the Kurdish rebel movement and its tactics are too important for Israel to ignore. Here, too Ofek 9 has a mission to perform.