Loss of Ofek-6 Deprives Israel of Second Spy Satellite in Critical Period

Israel’s 6th Ofek (Horizon) plummeted to a watery death in the Mediterranean Sea when it was test-fired Monday, September 6, from Palmahim. Malfunction of the third stage of the Israeli-designed Shavit booster was blamed for the loss of the $50m Ofek-6, the latest in the series of spy satellites developed by a consortium led by Israel Aircraft Industries. The first was launched in 1988. Number 5 has been orbiting 300 to 700 kilometers above earth every 90 minutes for two years out of a life span of five.
Satellites are the first layer of Israel’s shield against ballistic missiles, designed to spot incoming threats and alert defensive systems such as the Arrow II missile-killer. They are launched by the same Shavit rocket system as the Ofek. The latest malfunction occurred ten days after Arrow II failed to shoot down a dummy missile designed to perform similarly to the Iranian Shehab-3 intermediate missile in a test-firing off the California coast. The missile’s 1300-km range covers all of Israel as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
These two failures are a grave setback to Israel’s deterrent ability at a dangerous juncture. In the next two-three years, Israel will need all its resources to face Iran’s advancing nuclear threat and burgeoning terrorist offensive. Ofek-6 was intended to give Israel an edge in this contest in three fields:
1. The use of two advanced surveillance satellites instead of one to simultaneously track the two fronts, nuclear and terrorist, Tehran has opened against Israel. One is a nuclear threat, from sites scattered across the Islamic republic; the second derives from proliferating terrorist bases spread out from Iran, Iraq and Syria to Lebanon (app. 879,730 square miles).
Together, the two satellites would have doubled the chances of spotting hostile movements.
The inadequacy of a single satellite in orbit became manifest in the past year when Iran clandestinely fanned its 15 known nuclear installations out across the country, over an area of 636,000 square miles. debkafile`s military sources reveal some of their locations for the first time.
They are located in the south, at Fasa, Bushehr and Dakhovin, at the tip of the Shatt al-Arb waterway;
In central Iran, at Natanz, Saghand, Tabas, which is close to the Afghan border, Chalus and Neka on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea;
In the north, at Bonab and Tabriz.
The most remote sites have been sunk below ground in enormous bunkers, some of them decoys to deceive watchers in the sky.
Ofek-5, however efficient it may cannot alone cover this vast spread in time of war. On August 11, it joined the packs of American and Russian satellites tracking the Shehab-3 test firing. The Iranian missile’s new navigating system, smaller fins and improved warhead for entry to the earth’s atmosphere, designed for greater aerodynamic flexibility and longer range, was not an unmixed success. However, Ofek-5 without a partner was found to be incapable of gathering all the data Israeli intelligence needed to fully appreciate the intentions of Iran’s military leaders. This lack of a second satellite will be felt even more acutely when the Shehab-5, whose range is believed to be 2,500 km, comes to be tested soon.
2. There are intelligence reports that as part of its nuclear weapons program, Iran is also building a range of military satellites for launching by Shehab-5. Israel cannot afford to have a lone satellite cruising in the sky in 2005 or 2006 once the Iranians have placed theirs in orbit. From the military standpoint, Israeli is bound to assert space and missile – as well as nuclear – superiority over its enemies.
And another factor to be considered is this. Not only does Israel keep track of Iran’s weapons trials, Tehran is watching Israel just as closely.
Although their intelligence technology and access to US and Israeli testing sites are limited, the Iranians do not miss a single report on the deficiencies of the Arrow II and Ofek-6 and must have taken detailed stock of the holes in Israel’s defensive and intelligence shields.
3. Israel is obliged to guarantee its intelligence gathering ability in real time independently of US intelligence. The intelligence ties between Washington and Israel are extremely close but neither party is under any illusion that sharing is or can be total. For instance, the United States made a point of keeping Israel in the dark during its March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In his war book, American Soldier, the Iraq and Afghanistan war commander, General Tommy Franks, admits frankly that he always found ways of indicating to his Arab and Muslim hosts on whose side he stood in the Israel-Arab conflict.
Mutual trust between the Americans and Israelis is certainly not enhanced by the almost daily “revelations” in the American media of fresh aspects of the alleged Israeli mole case casting Israeli diplomats and members of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in a dubious light. Officials in Jerusalem are certain that someone in US intelligence, past or present, is deliberately pumping these “revelations” to the press to keep the affair and the atmosphere of mutual suspicion alive.
Israeli defense and aviation industry chiefs are doing their best to play down the consecutive failures of the Arrow II and the Ofek-6 as mere technical glitches that will soon be cleared up. But they cannot hide the fact that Iran is racing forward at top speed with its development of a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver, while Israel is held back with only one eye in the sky and concern about the Arrow’s ability to intercept an incoming Iranian Shehab.
Both these deficiencies are within the power of Israel’s defense and aviation establishment to correct if they pull their socks up.

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