After years of heated debate over competing claims to Israel’s military space activities, top brass here have determined that the Air Force will have sole responsibility for designing and operating the nation’s future satellites.
Based on recent recommendations of the Israel Defense Force s (IDF) General Staff, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz officially endorsed Air Force “ownership” of the space mission, along with a formal change in the service’s name and mission statement. Letterhead, insignia and other brandings will soon bear the name Israel Air and Space Force (IASF), with its mission “to operate in the air and space arena” for purposes of defense and deterrence.
“In the past, roles and missions regarding space were never quite clear. We had many long discussions until we defined the Air Force as the service responsible for air and space,” said Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, IDF deputy chief of staff.
Some had argued that Israel’s Military Intelligence or C4 (Command, Control, Computers and Communications) branches should take the lead because of the role space plays in those functions, Kaplinsky said.
“But we understood that the entire concept for space should reside as much as possible with a single service branch, which can define requirements and build a force. Now it is clear to all that the IASF will provide the services and capabilities for use by the C4 and Military Intelligence branches,” Kaplinsky noted.
In a Feb. 3 interview, Israel’s No. 2 military officer said the IASF will provide space capabilities to users much in the way it has provided aerial reconnaissance capabilities for intelligence officials. “All that airborne imagery is not being collected for the use of the Air Force commander, but on behalf of the intelligence agencies. But it’s all operated by the Air Force. They determine the capabilities of the camera, the size of the lens, and which platform it should be mounted on. Therefore, there’s no reason why, if we truly want to optimize capabilities, that we shouldn’t apply the same service-specific concept to space.”
In a Jan. 31 conference at the Fisher Center for Strategic Air and Space Studies, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, IASF commander, said changes in the service’s name and mission are not merely cosmetic, since they herald significant changes in the way Israel will design, manage and operate its future space force. “All aspects of our space-based concept will now be consolidated under one roof, as an integral part of the IASF plan,” Shkedy said.
Prior to resolution of the roles and missions dispute, disparate priorities and programs championed by various organizations within the Israeli defense establishment competed for extremely limited funding. The diffused focus and lack of consensus regarding Israel’s future space priorities invariably led to budget cuts and program delays.
“Without pointing fingers, we’re not even close to determining the basic elements of building and managing a space force structure… I intend to define requirements, and then we need to put it on the table in a courageous way so that the entire defense establishment works together in an organized and comprehensive manner to realize our goals,” Shkedy said.
At the event commemorating Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, and the other crew members who perished three years ago aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia , Shkedy unveiled the service’s vision for space exploitation. He insisted that Israel cannot depend on others for essential intelligence, command and control, precision targeting and other space capabilities, and must develop its force structure accordingly.
“Someone can be your best friend, but under certain conditions can decide to turn off the switch and cut you off. Therefore, it is imperative to develop independent operational capabilities in the space arena,” he said. Although he did not specify, Shkedy likely was referring to protracted discussions that led to Washington’s agreement to provide Israel with critical early warning data from U.S. Defense Support Program satellites during the 1991 and 2003 U.S.-led wars against Iraq.
Just as Israel insists on total air superiority, it also must achieve total information superiority, which Shkedy said is predicated on space-based systems. “Space will provide us the necessary strategic depth. It allows us the flexibility and freedom to deploy forces without constraints of sovereignty,” the IASF chief said.
In the long term, Shkedy said, Israel must consider assets for defending against and responding to attacks on its satellites. He also cited the long-term need to develop capabilities for refueling, repairing and upgrading satellites in space.
“We need to determine affordable, effective means of meeting requirements 10, 20 and even 30 years ahead. No doubt, the growing significance of the space sector requires changes in the proportion of investments in air and space relative to other domains,” said Shkedy.
David Ivry, a retired major general who commanded the Israel Air Force from 1977-1982, lauded Shkedy’s space vision as “decisive and fairly convincing.” He warned, however, that the service would have to be very selective in determining priorities since “the budget won’t be there” for everything outlined in Shkedy’s plan.
Speaking at the Jan. 31 event in his capacity as chairman of the Fisher Institute, Ivry, who also managed most Israeli space developments in his former role as director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense , said funding could be made available once there is a strong consensus that space is essential for national security.
He noted that following Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, Israel’s urgent need to monitor events in the Sinai without violating Egyptian airspace gave birth to Israel’s first spy satellite. “At first, there were no budgetary limitations, because this was viewed as an urgent, national priority,” Ivry said.
Shkedy’s vision for space exploitation could serve as an “extraordinary catalyst” for the type of thorough strategic review that will shape the nation’s future space force, Ivry said. “Our need to assure our existence in the face of continuing threats requires us to determine what constitutes critical national assets and missions,” he said.
As for space-based combat capabilities that Shkedy envisioned for the longer term, Ivry said, “We need to think about the field of space combat, but not to do anything about it just yet … Obviously the introduction of things that can render our ability to achieve information superiority vulnerable will require a response.”