TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) is using software upgrades, revamped ground operations, and entirely new ways of synthesizing and exploiting imagery to improve the performance of their growing fleet of remote sensing satellites.

With five satellites in orbit and two more – Ofeq-8 and TecSAR-2 – planned for launch in the next two years, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) is shifting emphasis from the number of satellites it reasonably can expect to deploy to the quality of the products it will be able to extract from existing military and dual-use assets.

With budget constraints forcing MoD into sharing more future satellite programs with international partners and commercial investors, officials increasingly are looking to ground-based technologies. Focusing on changes they can do on the ground – rather than building into the satellites all the bells and whistles they might need in the future – allows them to incorporate technology that does not have to be shared with future partners, officials said.

Defense and industry sources here say software upgrades to
‘s Ofeq-5 now allow Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operators to collect more imagery than was possible when the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) satellite was launched in May 2002. Moreover, they say the IDF’s recently established
is now fully operational, with dozens of specially trained operations officers and analysts tasked with maximizing output of
‘s orbital fleet.

According to an IDF officer, the Center operates a new wideband, high-speed network that synthesizes imagery downlinked from Ofeq-5 and Ofeq-7 and combines it with radar data from the TecSAR radar satellite. The result, he said, was a newfound ability to deliver what he called “actionable intelligence” to multiple users within three hours of initial tasking.

“It’s all automatic. Authorized users wherever they are in the world send in their tasking order through secure Internet and within three hours, we’re able to deliver a product,” the officer said.

Eshed, MoD’s director for space programs, said security restrictions precluded him from commenting on specific software upgrades or new methods of data extraction, synthesis and dissemination to users. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the ways in which spacecraft are tasked and imagery is transferred to users is “no less important” than capabilities built into satellites at launch, regardless of whether they are dedicated military – Ofeq-series – satellites or dual-use systems, like the Eros.

“We’re at a point where we want to take advantage of existing assets and make ground terminals smart enough to get more information from the given data. That means processing, archiving, dissemination and, of course, concept of operation,” Eshed said.

Along with what Eshed called “the extraction of knowledge,” another key challenge is in the realm of mission planning. “There are multiple targets, multiple satellites and multiple users, and the key is to use the brains on the ground to optimize all the assets, fuse together all the information, and deliver a useful product in real time to those who need it most,” he said.

‘s longtime space chief said MoD always will need to retain certain critical technologies and capabilities for its exclusive use. “Already now, and certainly in the future, [militarily relevant] added value will come from what we’re able to do on the ground.”

Weiss, corporate vice president and general manager of IAI’s Missile and Space Group, likened orbiting satellites to fighter platforms, where added performance now can be provided through avionics rather than the platform itself. “Twenty or thirty years ago, if you wanted added performance, conventional wisdom demanded you invest in a new aircraft. But today, that added performance is provided through avionics. With satellites, it’s the same,” Weiss said. “Most of the companies dealing in this business are coming to the same conclusion that product dissemination is at least as important as the product itself … At the end of the day, the bottom line is the quality of the product we’re able to put into the hand of our users.”