Despite intensive efforts to improve the lifting performance and reliability of Israel’s homegrown Shavit launcher, Tel Aviv strongly is considering use of a foreign rocket to loft its newest military satellite into orbit.

Defense and industry sources said Israel’s Ministry of Defense and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) have initiated preliminary discussions with Russian, French and other launch providers on cost , schedule and technical aspects associated with IAI’s TechSAR satellite.

The TechSAR spacecraft, the Israeli military’s first synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite, is planned for launch in 2006. Government-owned IAI also is prime contractor for the Shavit, a solid-fueled, three-stage rocket.

Possible launch of the TechSAR satellite by a foreign rocket could signal a setback for the Shavit program, which has been a source of national pride since it lofted Israel’s first Ofeq spacecraft into low Earth orbit in 1988. But pragmatists within Israel’s defense establishment note that Shavit has failed more than it has succeeded, and that the military cannot afford the loss of yet another space-based intelligence asset due to launch failure.

The latest failure occurred Sept. 6, 2004, when a malfunction in an electronic triggering device failed to ignite the third-stage motor. As a result Israel’s Ofeq-6 spy satellite — which the military had been counting on to enhance its overhead coverage of Iranian and other sensitive, high-threat areas — plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea.

Supporters of the Shavit said a July 12 test of an improved rocket would bolster confidence in the indigenous launcher. However, all details associated with the test at an Israel Air Force base south of Tel Aviv have been classified as secret, preventing IAI and other industry executives from commenting on how the Shavit would benefit from demonstrated upgrades.

“We don’t plan to release any information from the test,” Yair Ramati, managing director of IAI’s Malam d ivision, which produces the Shavit, said July 13. A terse Israeli Ministry of Defense statement issued after the test noted, “A test was conducted within the framework of checking rocket ignition for the launch of satellites.”

Ta l Inbar, vice president of the Israel Space Society, noted that one of the recommendations of a committee tasked by the Ministry of Defense to investigate the latest Shavit failure called for dedicated test launches without the payload. “If yesterday’s launch included successful separation of all the stages, which I believe it did, then this is certainly a positive step toward improved reliability,” Inbar said July 13. “I also suspect that the test yielded needed data to enhance the lift capacity of the system.”

According to Inbar, the Shavit program requires at least one test launch every two years in order to preserve the system as a viable option for inserting Israeli satellites into orbit. “There is no assembly line for the Shavit, and there’s no off-the-shelf inventory to speak of. Launchers are essentially made to order, and if you have a launch once every three or four years, you begin to lose the industrial expertise.”

With regard to the Shavit’s track record, Inbar said, “Officially, the record is three failures and three successes. But there were more failures — possibly four more — that have never been acknowledged.” He declined to elaborate on the unreported launch failures.

Inbar’s assertion appeared to be supported by David Ivry, a former director-general of the Ministry of Defense, who told a conference audience earlier this year, “We’ve had more satellites on the ground than in space. The failures of satellites over time were too frequent.”

Shavit proponents, however, note that all satellite launch programs experience numerous failures. “We simply cannot do without a national launch capability. We cannot depend on commercial services, which come with their own restrictions and limitations. If we do so, we risk privatization of our intelligence arms,” said Uzi Rubin, a former director of Israel’s Missile Defense Office.

Rubin said Israel’s defense establishment would continue to work on upgrading the Shavit for future launches. He declined to discuss the July 12 test or how Shavit would benefit from test results.

With regard to the pursuit of an alternative, non-Israeli launch vehicle for the TechSAR satellite, defense and industry sources said it could be more a reflection of changing orbital requirements than a loss of confidence in the Shavit. According to these sources, the Ministry of Defense intends to offer TechSAR imagery of areas outside the Middle East to key export customers, which may necessitate a higher orbiting altitude than can be achieved with the Shavit.

“If they want to export this imagery, they’re going to need a very high inclination that provides more imaging areas,” said one industry source. The source noted July 13 that all Israeli-launched low-Earth orbiting satellites travel at lower positions than other satellites on polar trajectories because of the need to launch westward over the Mediterranean.

“We can’t launch northward because of safety reasons and because we can’t have our launchers and payloads ascending over neighboring enemy states. And by the laws of nature, that means our satellites are at less than 40 degrees. So if [the Ministry of Defense] is thinking about commercializing TechSAR, they’re going to need a higher trajectory,” he said.

Ministry of Defense spokeswoman Rachel Naidek-Ashkenazi and IAI spokesman Doron Suslik declined to comment July 13 on the possible foreign launch of TechSAR.

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