HERZLIYA, Israel — At least one senior Israeli government official and a growing chorus of experts here are urging Israel’s defense establishment to develop and deploy anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities designed to disable or destroy enemy space-based imaging systems.
Citing imaging satellite development efforts under way in Iran, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the Middle East that could render Israel vulnerable to enemy attack, experts here are pressing for significant hikes in Israeli defense spending to accommodate a ground- as well as a space-based ASAT program. Moreover, experts here insist Israeli ASAT capabilities will be necessary to defend the growing number of imaging as well as military communications satellites that Israel plans to deploy over the next two decades.
“I n the coming years, space will be used not only for intelligence purposes, but for real warfighting. And this emerging field of space-based weapons will require a response in terms of ASAT defense capabilities,” said Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In a rare public discussion on Israel’s military use of space, Steinitz said it would be “intolerable” for spy satellites from Iran or other enemy states to be orbiting and imaging over Israel in times of war.
Speaking last month at a symposium sponsored by the Israeli Space Society and the Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, Steinitz said he would use his influential committee chairmanship to push for greater space-related funding “and the requisite attitudinal changes” to enable a more militarized use of space.
Specifically, Steinitz urged defense and industry officials to consider future developments of anti-satellite missiles, satellite-attacking lasers and ship-based missiles “that can strike the skies.” And while the lawmaker conceded that Arab and Islamic imaging satellite development efforts were still in their very early stages, he said Israel must be prepared to defend against such future capabilities.
Tal Inbar, vice president of the Israeli Space Society, echoed Steinitz’ call for intensified investment in military space programs, including ASAT development efforts. In his presentation to last month’s symposium, Inbar cited Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as countries in the region working to deploy their own intelligence satellite programs. He also cited efforts by Iran to develop its own indigenous space launcher based on the Shihab-3 ballistic missile.
“At the moment, Israel enjoys tremendous superiority in space vis a vis its Arab and Islamic neighbors. But many of us are saying that we should begin to plan for this capability today so we can use it 10 to 15 years from now,” Inbar told Space News in a follow-up Jan. 6 interview.
When analyzing the need for ASAT capabilities, Inbar said Israeli officials must not only consider spy satellite development programs in the region, but the proliferation of widely available and increasingly capable commercial remote sensing satellites that routinely orbit Israel. “Israel may one day have to defend against international commercial remote sensing satellites, including those from the United States, that provide targeting information to our enemies,” Inbar said.
“It is crucial that Israel develop a space defense doctrine and a solid space vision that is supported by suitable and continuous financing,” Inbar said.
He acknowledged that exhortations for Israeli ASAT capabilities have not been widely accepted among Israeli decision-makers. “The reaction so far has been mixed. There are many in the Air Force and in the defense industries that are visionary enough to understand the need, but the political backing is not firm enough at this point,” Inbar conceded.
Uzi Rubin, founding director of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, also cited political obstacles preventing development and deployment of Israeli ASAT capabilities. Nevertheless, Rubin noted that the military need could prove compelling enough for the Israeli government to tackle political obstacles if and when Iran passes a number of so-called “intolerable” thresholds.
“If the Iranians become nuclear capable and if they deploy a high-resolution remote sensing satellite and if their ballistic missile capability is considered highly accurate, then the combination of accurate delivery vehicles and reliable reconnaissance combined with aggressive intentions gives them a very credible first strike capability that could warrant a need for an Israeli ASAT,” Rubin told Space News Jan. 19.
He added, “Those are a lot of ifs, but once these thresholds are crossed, ASAT could become part of the totality of our answer to this threat, in addition to all the other elements of our answer, including early warning, active attack options, terminal defense, etc.”
In a Jan. 19 interview, retired major general David Ivry, former commander of the Israel Air Force, said Israel — as a matter of guiding principal — should develop and acquire the means to defend itself against all threats. “And once this threat comes from space, one must prepare against this threat as well,” he said.
However, Ivry stopped short of endorsing calls to develop a robust ASAT capability, citing budgetary constraints and the need to prioritize among pressing military requirements. “Israel doesn’t have the luxury of putting a top priority on defending against this threat from space,” said Ivry, who also served as Israel’s longtime director-general of the Ministry of Defense throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s.
When asked if Israel should invest in early development of ASAT capabilities over the next decade or so, Ivry replied cryptically, “A lot of countries need to develop these capabilities, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it. But in a critical time, it could possibly be used as a last resort.”
Retired major general Eitan Ben-Eliahu, a former Israel Air Force commander who, in the mid-1990s, was the first to officially redefine the service as a combined air and space force, said it was “way too early” to discuss development and deployment of ASAT capabilities. “There are so many other, more pressing priorities in the realm of space that it is entirely too premature to begin lobbying for the levels of investment required of a major new weapon system such as ASAT,” Ben-Eliahu told Space News Jan. 18.
More than 150 nations, including Russia, China, Canada and members of the European Union, vote annually to extend the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to include a worldwide ban on ASAT and other space-based weapons. Such efforts, however, have proven unsuccessful due to opposition from the United States and a handful of other nations, including Israel.