Monday, June 11, 2007

Eye in the Sky

Israel launched its latest spy satellite early Monday morning, giving the Jewish state additional and "unprecedented" capabilities for monitoring its regional enemies, including Iran.

The booster carrying the Ofek-7 satellite was successfully launched from Palmahim Air Force Base at 2:40 a.m. Israel time on Monday. Israeli officials told the Jerusalem Post that the 660-pound satellite began "showing signs of life" within 55 minutes after reaching orbit. However, they cautioned that it will take several days of testing to confirm that the Ofek-7 is fully operational.

Today's launch came almost three years after the failure of the Ofek-6, which fell into the sea after its third-stage booster malfunctioned. With the loss of that satellite, Israel continued to rely on older overhead platforms, while work on the Ofek-7 proceeded. Addition of the new satellite will give Israel additional flexibility in maintaining surveillance on its regional foes, with particular emphasis on Syria and Iran.

Israeli defense sources claim the new satellite has a resolution of 70 centimeters (just over two feet); that isn't quite in the same class as our best imagery sensors, but its more than sufficient for targeting and surveillance purposes. More importantly, the Ofek-7 is believed to have multi-spectral capabilities, allowing it to gather information when targets are obscured by clouds, and in frequency ranges that can further enhance Israel's understanding of particular threats.

Equally impressive is Israel's rapid advance in developing--and deploying--overhead reconnaissance platforms. In less than two decades, the Israelis have made remarkable progress in both satellite and sensor technology, a capability that its rivals have yet to match. However, there have been failures along the way; the launches of Ofek-4 and Ofek-6 ended with the loss of both payloads. In the case of the Ofek-4 debacle, it left Israel without its own overhead coverage for more than a year, until Ofek-5 became operational.

Israeli overhead capabilities are another reason that foes like Syria and Iran are investing heavily in denial and deception programs. Most reconnaissance satellites have a common flaw; they are highly predictable in their orbits, allowing adversaries to plan activities around known coverage windows. This tactic--better known as activity scheduling--remains a major hurdle for countries that operate overhead platforms. It won't take the Syrians and Iranians long to figure out the coverage patterns and make the necessary adjustments. Activity scheduling isn't foolproof; operators can perform various maneuvers to enhance satellite coverage, and adversaries can only wonder how "far" above the horizon a platform's collection window actually begins.

And so, the ages old battle of cat-and-mouse continues in the Middle East, this time from low earth orbit.

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