The Middle East is pervaded with the sense of zooming towards a summer war that could flare any time from mid-May, a sense that is not publicly articulated by officials in the capitals concerned, including Washington. Yet the conviction of its probability, which dominates most intelligence assessments, is sending alarums flying around the corridors of the White House, the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon.
On the ground, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report the top brass of Middle East armies plunged deep in crash training courses, the build-up of weapon and ordnance stocks and a hard push to make certain that a summer outbreak of hostilities does not catch any of them unready.
The high commands of the Iranian, Israeli, Saudi, Egyptian and Syrian armies have programmed their preparations less for scenarios focusing on a US military strike on Iran and a chain reaction involving its allies, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas and Jihad Islami, and more on a limited military clash in the Persian Gulf between US-UK and Iranian forces, or a new flare-up between Syria and Hizballah and Israel with the potential for blowing up into regional confrontation.
One obvious symptom that high-powered war preparations are on the move is an extraordinary flurry of space activity over Middle East skies.
Since mid-March, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have between them secretly launched 5 military spy satellites – three by Israel and one apiece by the Saudis and Egyptians. Israel has been so intent on keeping the launches under wraps that they were not given names but military code numbers.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources believe that the spy satellites launched belonged to the high-resolution imaging military intelligence Ofek program, possibly including Ofek-7. Orbiting together, they over-fly Iran, the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean basin. It is the first time three Israeli satellites have ever been put in parallel orbits.
Ofek-7 was scheduled for launch in 2007 together with the advanced radar satellite TechSAR, both developed by Israeli Aerospace Industries (AIA).
TechSAR is described by knowledgeable military sources as a “technological breakthrough which expands the capabilities of Israel’s satellite program. Armed with synthetic aperture radar, this satellite is capable of all-weather imaging of static objects obscured by clouds or smoke day or night.”
Ready for integration in US missile shield?
Operating in the X band, the medium-resolution satellite weighing some 400 kilos can support sea- and land-based radars developed for the US missile defense. This means the Israeli satellite can supplement airborne networks of the future Space-Based Radar constellation.
According to some sources, TechSAR was sent to the United States for further upgrading. Northrop Grumman was to have outfitted the radar satellite with additional payloads and specialized software to provide “operationally responsive” capabilities.
Some of DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources suggest that the upgraded TechSAR may have already gone into operation as one of the three Israeli launchings after late March. Certainly, the satellite’s capabilities after modification in the US include attributes for the program’s integration in US air defense systems.
This follows on the developments reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 294 on March 23 (Israel’s Arrow Slots into US Missile Shield in Europe).
Wednesday, March 17, Saudi Arabia and Egypt lofted their first military satellites into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Russian Dnepr carrier rocket boosted 16 foreign satellites: five were SaudiComSat for communications, telephone, radio and television, and the sixth, SaudiSat-3, was a military surveillance satellite – as was Egyptsat-1
Riyadh is particularly jealous of concealing every particular of its spy satellite and its capabilities. According to information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the Saudis built it with outside military assistance, possibly Chinese or Indian. SaudiSat-3 is believed to provide the Saudi government with access to a clear enough picture of the ground in Iran, the Persian Gulf and Iraq, to sever its reliance on outside sources, such as the United States.
A Russian space agency spokesman said after the launch: “Control over all satellites has been passed to the customers” – meaning, in the case of Riyadh, the Saudi ground station.
Cairo’s Egyptsat-1 is described as “devoted to scientific research and photography to support development in the fields of construction, cultivation and fighting desertification.” DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources describe it as a military micro-satellite which can attain an altitude of 670 km. and beam data down to a ground station established in the Egyptian desert west of Cairo.
It carries two cameras defined by military satellite experts as of “limited capabilities” operating in the electromagnetic spectrum and infrared ranges. The Egyptian satellite is far more primitive than the Israeli and Saudi programs.
However, Cairo is reported to be in the process of building a far more sophisticated satellite called Desertset, for which the Swiss Carlo Gavazzi firm has been hired.
The Middle East has embarked not only on a nuclear race, but appears also to have taken the first steps in a contest for boosting national military intelligence satellites miles above the earth’s surface.