March 6, 2023 | Haaretz

Israel Super Capabilities in Space

The great achievements of Israel space industry, since its inception, demand the continued development of advanced "blue-and-white" space related technologies, cultivation of visual intelligence, construction of the relevant knowledge centers and international cooperation
March 6, 2023 | Haaretz

Israel Super Capabilities in Space

The great achievements of Israel space industry, since its inception, demand the continued development of advanced "blue-and-white" space related technologies, cultivation of visual intelligence, construction of the relevant knowledge centers and international cooperation

Geospatial intelligence, GEOINT, is the evolution of visual intelligence, VISINT, and as some would argue, a revolution in the field. This important source of intelligence has remained a “stepchild” inside the intelligence community, compared to SIGINT (signal intelligence) and HUMINT (human intelligence).

“The egg or the chicken?” – Leading Principles in Israel R&D process

The main question is who came first, the operational requirements or the technological capabilities? The correct answer is of course: “It depends”. Sometimes, the operational requirements lead to the development of the technological capabilities; Other times, new technological capabilities, usually scientific breakthroughs, make it possible to obtain operational requirements that the customers either didn’t know they need or didn’t think they could request.

Precision guided munitions (PGM’s) are a classic example. Before computerized vision capabilities were developed, the operational customers didn’t think or know they could demand the development of a precision guided munitions that didn’t rely on GPS, which could be jammed. In the early 2000s, computerized vision matured, along with advanced high-power computing (HPC) capabilities, and Israel was one of the first countries in the world to translate these developments into advanced capabilities of precision guided munitions. This was initially a “top secret” capability, until it received export licenses, becoming a commodity for the Israeli defense industry in the appropriate countries.

From a conservative approach to a breakthrough

VISINT from space was developed in a similar way. In 1976, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked the US President Gerald Ford for technological capabilities to develop a space industry in Israel, the derogatory answer was: “What for? You’ll be getting from us all the necessary images,” and “Space is too big for Israel.”

Ford was not alone. Even in Israel, many raised an eyebrow when the “crazy” Brigadier General (Res.) Haim Eshed, who was the head of the Israeli space program for more than 30 years, came up with ideas for the development of Israeli independent space industry: launchers and satellites. The heads of the military intelligence and of the planning directorates of the IDF strenuously opposed developing “blue-and-white” capabilities, claiming that Israel could get what was needed from the US, and in any case, Israel would not succeed in developing an independent capability. They also argue that space was too big for Israel. It is worth listening to their grumbling today in the event of a malfunction (even for minutes) in the continuous operation of the magnificent space capabilities that have been established, most of them based on “blue-and-white” industries and technologies.

Luckily for Israel, according to the rules of the game that were in force at the time, the Directorate for defense, research and Development (DDR&D) in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) was almost completely independent in taking decisions and in its use of R&D budgets – naturally, after taking into account the military professional views. A Space Directorate was established under DDR&D and the rest is history, without going into all the details of the struggles, failures, and the amazing achievements.

Space and VISINT are not the only areas that suffered from the conventional conservative approach towards ground breaking developments. Almost all major operational projects currently being used by the IDF, which we cannot even imagine our situation without them today, were developed against strong initial opposition. This probably stems from the “chicken and the egg question” and the natural conservatism of those who look only at what happens “on their watch.”

During last decades, there has been a certain change, and IDF and MOD leaders realize that the technological and operational capabilities they enjoy today are based on brave decisions made 20 years before them, and that they should follow a similar approach. Until recently, this is what happened in the field of space as well, and we may end up repeating some of the past mistakes if we don’t stay alerted.

The main players

So who are the main players that make up the GEOINT capabilities in space and in the air, and why do I think I am entitled to express my opinion on those issues on behalf of most of them?

1. Decision makers – policy makers, responsible for allocating resources and building multi-year plans: the cabinet and the government, the National Security Council, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defense, the IDF Planning Directorate, and the General Staff.

2. Developers and customers – Basic R&D, feasibility studies, technological and operational demonstrators, and full-scale development: DDR&D/Space Directorate and the military R&D unit, defense industry, international partners, as well as the systems operators within IDF and the security establishment (military intelligence, air force, navy, and ground forces).

3. Researchers and the academic world – Basic research in space sciences, including training of the personnel required to ensure future capabilities: DDR&D, academia, and sometimes the defense industry. The technological areas of interest are many and varied: electro-optics and space cameras, communication, space propulsion, energy sources, special materials, miniaturization, launchers, space standard testing, and more.

During years of service in the intelligence, DDR&D, and the National Security Council, as well as during years at the Technion, I have been involved with those issues at various levels of intensity, as a player in all fields, so, as far as I understand, I am in a position that allows me to present my subjective point of view.

The main intelligence sources are:

1. Classic SIGINT – COMINT, ELINT, ACINT, OSINT (open-source intelligence), and more.

2. Cyber– which in recent decades has become a central source for defense, collection, offense and influence.

3. Classic HUMINT.

4. VISINT– including GEOINT.

Because of the Israel global leadership in several academic fields, and the accelerated development of new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, and high-end computing capabilities, the IDF and the defense industry, achieved great progress in areas such as encryption, big data, machine learning, deep learning and more.

It is possible that the increase in scope and importance of these key issues will lead the IDF to the decision to establish a new cyber command, corps, or division as part of the Military Intelligence Directorate or alongside with it, concentrating all forces operating in this area, and also to establish a space or GEOINT division within the Military Intelligence Directorate, the air force, or the General Staff.

VISINT/GEOINT: The “stepchild” inside the intelligence community

Until recently, and to a certain extent even now, The VISINT was treated within the military intelligence as a stepchild or as the “least favorite” son. As someone who grew up and educated within Unit 8200, my subjective feeling than was that within the intelligence there are 8200 and 8153, while the VISINT (9700 ,9900) was less important.

The low priority given to VISINT was manifest in the personnel (mainly academic) assigned to the field (quantity and quality). The number of IDF top technological leaders’ program “Talpiot” graduates assigned to VISINT, compared to other Intel fields, tells the whole story, and the same applies to budget allocation. What saved the VISINT were usually projects developed in the US with Foreign Military Funds (FMF) budgets, which brought home capabilities, some of which could have been developed in Israel (which is what usually happened in the second generation of the systems imported from the US), if budgets in Shekels were allocated to this end from the beginning. The low priority was manifest also in realatively low investment in infrastructure, equipment, and high-level management attention.

Subjectively, vision is considered by many to be the most important sense, so the historical approach and priority may have been slightly wrong.

In recent years, there has been a slight change, but it still has not fundamentally altered the internal balances. It is clear that part of the change is due to the change inside the intelligence priorities and the shift in emphasis from strategic and leaders’ intentions intelligence to battlefield targets intelligence.

It is a shame that still a significant part of the resources for the development of solutions in the field of VISINT is yet again based on FMF dollars.

As someone who managed the negotiations and signed for Israel the last MOU agreement with the US, in September 2016, it is clear to me that the MOU agreement is very important for IDF force buildup process, but the FMF Was intended mainly for main platforms and not for the procurement of services.

The main gaps (technologies and operational capabilities):

1. A very high resolution that Israel cannot obtain from the civilian market, which doesn’t need it.

2. Short REVISIT time for high-value targets, where the ultimate objective is a continuous coverage. Single and standard satellite coverage, which defines a fly over an area of interest once every ninety minutes (depending on the orbit), without even taking into account the “dark cycles,” does not allow for continuous coverage without building a massive and expensive constellations and dozens of satellites. This is neither possible nor economical within the current approaches of development, procurement, and launching. In the past, this need led to the “new space” approach, first in the US, then in Israel, but according to the results it looks like this is probably not the solution to this problem.

3. Versatile satellites. Size, price, time to market (TTM), and time to launch (TTL). Shortening the time for development, produce, launch, and placement in orbit.

4. Various sensors all over the spectrum: super and hyperspectral, IR, color, SAR.

5. Versatile ground stations that will receive, without long and expensive development, any source from space, in any format.

6. Advanced capabilities for analyzing the vast and diverse information received: automation, object tracking, change detection, and more.

7. SIGINT from space: ELINT, EOB (battlefield mapping), COMINT from LEO satellites, or even in the future from GEO satellites.

8. Launch detection and support for missile defense systems.

9. Continuous monitoring of space activity to identify threats, in and from space, and to conduct a continuous space spectrum monitoring.

10. Capability to “hold” moving and stationary targets, and to close “fire circles”.

11. Building economic capacity for development and procuring space related equipment: affordability, constellations, sensors miniaturization (communication, EO, IOT, Internet).

This gaps list is naturally a partial one, within the limitations of clearance, but a close look highlights the importance to maintain the centers of excellence inside Israel defense establishments, and keeping the main areas, but those you can get as is from the civilian market, as “blue-and-white”.

The importance of space for operational activity

The natural aspiration, which in the future will probably turn from fantasy into reality, is the capability to achieve a real-time continuous video surveillance with an appropriate resolution on all intelligence points of interest. Currently it seems like science fiction, or a capability reserved for action movies that have very small connection to reality, but things are changing rapidly, and if the necessary resources will be invested, the dream can become a reality.

The modern battlefield has long been referred to as “the empty battlefield.” The ground forces, aware of the fact that if they are exposed, they will certainly be destroyed, invest great efforts in hiding (underground and other capabilities). Almost the only way to continuously know the location of the enemy is through VISINT, from space and the layers below.

Space and GEOINT became among the central enablers of effectively operating the WBW (War Between Wars). The important capability to continuously hold the attacked targets, before, during, and after the activity, and of doing a battle damage assessment (BDA), became a central parameter in the decision whether to initiate an action at all. Pointing at a target with high accuracy is what allows the precision guided weapons to accomplish their mission.

Other aspects, on which I will not elaborate, are about making the space a part of the battlefield (fighting in space and from space), and about navigation warfare.

The more advanced a country is, the more sensitive it is to making space a part of the battlefield, beyond using it as an intelligence gathering device.

Space from a high-level policy perspective

Information from space systems intelligence is a central element in the decision-making process, also at the political level, the level of the decision makers. Space is essential for production of “deceptions,” fake news, and media frauds, and naturally also one of the tools to combat these threats, when directed at us.

Part of the Israeli deterrence capability, at the decision makers level, is based on independent capabilities in space (launch and payloads).

Since the entrance ticket to the club of countries holding independent and significant capabilities in space is very expensive, the senior political and defense levels, can “trade” this capability as a commodity at all levels: systems, technologies and the accumulated information/data.

The recent massive civilian investments serve as a risk and as an opportunity to use space capabilities as a hot commodity. The surveillance satellites and the images you can acquire at the civilian market, with high quality and relevance, at a reasonable price, constitutes a relatively cheap reliable source of information and may inadvertently lead for some countries to an investment savings. The images availability also reduces some of Israel’s attractiveness as a supplier, and enable our enemies to obtain high-quality information about targets in Israel.

On the other hand, even the leading vendors in the civilian market, significant as they may be, are dependent on governments investments and regulations. In addition, the reliability and the ability to meet obligations during “money times” are much greater when the contract is made between countries.

Military investments in space (alongside dual investments) cannot remain the sole responsibility of the IDF/J5 (Planning Directorate). Even if they receive approvals from the National Security Council and the Ministerial Committees, they must remain a national resource. The Ministry of Defense/ DDR&D must lead the development directions and the allocation of resources, as was always the case for DDR&D, in cooperation with the IDF, but in a complete independence.

The academia role

Academia plays a very important role in building capabilities for space. Besides the activity already being conducted, an extensive platform is available for much more. Academia role is in “shuutering the glass ceilings” while dealing with high-risk, high value potential.

Examples of topics that should be led by the academia are: constellations, orbit optimization, smart swarms of nano-satellites, small and efficient electric motors for space, miniaturization, electro-optics, lasers, quantum communication, and more.

In addition, academia must deal with dangers in space and to provide solutions in areas such as cyber threats. The Academia can also provide solutions to improve economic viability (affordability), LCC, and special materials.

Summary and recommendations

Israel must maintain (almost) complete independence in space: “blue-and-white”.

A country will get an answer to some of its needs, even from its greatest friends, only if it proves its independence to provide them independently, as illustrated by the answer Prime Minister Rabin received from the American President in 1976, when Israel had no capabilities in space.

It is important to understand that Israel full requirements in space VISINT are not part of the economic interests leading the civilian market forces. Therefore, the answers to those needs will not be available if Israel will not developed them alone. And even when Israel will mistakenly find some capabilities at the civilian market, they will not be available when really needed, regardless of promises and contracts.

One example, which of course is not unequivocal, is the present Israel decision to enter the HRC project (a constellation of satellites that will enable high revisit image taking capabilities of the most important points of interest), vis-à-vis an American supplier who won the tender. This is a good opportunity to use, at a relatively low cost, FMF funds, which are more available than the Shekel, capabilities that were developed and will continue to be developed in the US. On the other hand, since it is a contract to buy services (satellite images), the project will not advance Israel technology and certainly will not help its independence in space. The potential danger is that some “blue-and-white” capabilities within the Israeli defense industry and the MOD will decay, and when we will seek something more sophisticated from our friends again, we will be left empty-handed. In addition, because “the hand on the plug” is not ours, there is no certainty that we will receive what was promised, especially during global crises, which are certain to come. US security demands will then, legitimately, override Israel needs.

Only by developing and increasing an arsenal of independent capabilities (launching, satellites, and payloads), alongside the procurement of services, Israel will ensure continued control and independence in this important field, over time, and this is what Israel defense leadership should do.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagal is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Faculty of Aerospace at the Technion. He previously served as national security advisor (NSA) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as the head of the National Security Council (acting). He also served in a variety of technological and command positions in Unit 8200 and in DDR&D. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Israel Military and Political Power