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The Israeli military satellite Ofek-16

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Giancarlo Elia Valori

On July 6, at 4 a.m., the Israeli Aerospace Agency and Israel Aerospace Industries launched the Ofek-16 satellite (“Orpheus”) from the Palmachim air base, almost in the centre of the Jewish State.

The carrier was a Shavit 2 rocket and, after about 90 minutes of travel, the satellite entered into orbit regularly according to calculations.

Elbit System also collaborated in the program, organized by the MLM division of IAI. It provided the Jupiter Space camera with high spectral resolution, up to 50 centimetres and from a height of 600 kilometres, while the Ofek-16 camera can photograph 15 square kilometres in a single shot. Other companies included the Rafael Advanced Defense Systemand Tomer, which built the launch engines, as well as Baer System and Cielo Inertial Systems, for navigation systems and satellite full autonomy.

Ofek-16 is a satellite designed for advanced optoelectronic reconnaissance, which has on board a much improved version of the high definition electro-optical imaging system of the already used Jupiter camera, which is still present in the OPSAT-3000 satellite, with a resolution further increased to 0.5 meters.

So far Israel already has ten Ofek satellites operational, but only 13 countries in the world are capable of launching this type of spacecraft, of which the first Israeli one was sent into space on September 19, 1988.

Israel, however, never discloses the precise number of advanced satellites it has in orbit, but we know that Ofek-9, which will return to earth in two months, is still operational, in addition to Ofek-11, as well as Ofek-8 (TechSAR 1) and Ofek-10 (TechSar 2), which are satellites with synthetic aperture radars that allow continuous strategic control of the ground.

As usual, the images produced by the Ofek satellites will be analysed by the 9900 Intelligence Unit, but we should also recall the Amos military communication satellites, whose network covers all the strategically relevant areas of the world.

It should be recalled that the 9900 Unit is part of the Israeli Defence Forces and deals only with Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). Together with the 8200 Unit, which deals with Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) and the 504 Unit, which provides excellent Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and also sends covert agents everywhere in the world, it forms the entire military Intelligence, Aman.

Netanyahu said enigmatically that this new satellite “significantly strengthens Israel’s defences against near and far opponents”.

Obviously the reference here is mainly to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the ability to control the territory, the movements and the structures is essential to Israel to monitor the whole Middle East, and not only it.

Now, in fact, with the Ofek-16 satellite, Israel can observe the whole Middle East and other regions with great precision.

The Israeli reference here is to the sending of the first Iranian spy satellite, launched at the end of last April after several unsuccessful attempts.

The Islamic “Revolutionary Guard Corps” have in fact sent their first modern spy satellite, Noor 1 (“light”), into space. It was brought into orbit by the Ghased rocket, never mentioned before by the Iranian authorities and media.

Undoubtedly, the Ofek-16 satellite is designed to closely monitor the Iranian nuclear program, but the race for satellite IMINT has now spread to the entire Middle East and the Maghreb region. In fact, in a few days Tunisia will launch its self-produced and designed satellite, called Challenge ONE, sent into space by the historical Russian (indeed, Kazakh) Baikonur Cosmodrome, while the United Arab Emirates have even launched their own Mars Mission.

The Emirates reconstituted their Space Agency in 2014 and an Arab Space Coordination Group was also established in March 2019, with the participation of Jordan, Bahrain, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco and Egypt.

A new satellite, which will be called “813”, will be developed at the Emirates’ University in Al Ayn and will be operational in three years. The data will be reprocessed by a centre in Bahrain.

However, the Pan-Arab Space Agency’s objective is allegedly to build satellites to monitor climate change and environmental transformations.

813, however is the year in which the House of Wisdom was established in Baghdad, during the reign of Al Ma’mun.

In Egypt the satellite system is based on TIBA-1, a military satellite designed and built byThales, Alenia Space and Airbus, in the historical factories of Toulouse.

Egypt also has EgyptSat 2, also called MisrSat 2, built and designed by the Russian company Energy and the Egyptian company NARSS – a satellite that has been in operation since 2013.

Saudi Arabia can also rely on Saudisat 2, 3, 5A and 5B, for communications, in addition to the WorldViewScout 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

The various kinds of Chinese satellites currently in orbit are as many as 363.

China wants space supremacy over the United States and will make no concessions to it or, even less, to Europe while, in the future, it could support its allies in the Middle East.

China owns a very important anti-satellite system, namely SC-19, a kinetic energy ASAT vehicle which is launched by a medium range ballistic missile, operating since 2007, which directly hits an enemy satellite.

China also owns the Dong-Neng-3 and the Hongqi-19, some anti-satellite missiles already tested in 2015, while China has also already tested ASAT satellites with robotic arms for inspections and repairs. Shortly China will even launch its Mars mission known as “Tianwen-1“, which will be in space in a few days.

With specific reference to Iran, to which we have already made extensive reference, the most used base by the Pasdaran and space facilities is the one called “Imam Khomeini”, which is the main one among the eight Iranian national satellite and missile sites, located in the Semnan province east of Tehran.

Between 2009 and 2015 about 45 satellites were sent into space from various Iranian sites, but none of them lasted in orbit more than a few months.

Certainly the Iranian space launchers are mainly based on the refinement of Iran’s ICBMs. Iran has also recently established a “Centre for Space Monitoring”, which mainly uses radar, radio-optical technologies and radio tracking.

There is already a centre, operational since 2018, which tracks – with specific radars – all the satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

So far Iran has mainly two launch vehicles, Safir 1 and Safir 2, which is often called Simorgh.

In the Iranian space system, the specialized Agency created in 2004, is under the control of the Ministry for Information and Communications Technology, but it depends mainly on the Supreme Space Council, which is chaired by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As is already known, Iran can reproduce ICBM and LCBM missiles and weapons in large quantities, given the technology that, still today, often results from the Taepo Dong, No Dongand other missiles developed by North Korea.

Moreover, during a military parade in late 2019, Iran unveiled an autochthonous ballistic missile, namely Labbayk-1, which is expected to transform both the Zelzal and the Fateh-110 traditional Iranian ballistic missiles into guided weapons and satellite launchers.

In all likelihood, Iran has already obtained from China and Russia the laser technologies that “pierce” the atmosphere and allow to hit electronic energy satellites or kinetic weapons with other advanced technologies or electronic jamming weapons.

It was in 1990 that Russia agreed to build and design – together with scientists from Iran – the first modern military and civilian nuclear power plant.

In 2012, however, Iran and North Korea signed an agreement “for Civilian and Technological Scientific Cooperation”, which so far has been a great transfer of military and, above all, nuclear technology.

Iran has also proved to have remarkable ability to modify or blind the GPS systems.

In 2011, Iran claimed it had forced a U.S. RQ-170 drone to land within its borders, after having disrupted and manipulated its communications with the reference satellite, as well as its GPS receiver.

An Iranian base in one of the many islands in the Strait of Hormuz has been long modifying the communications of aircrafts and ships so that they unintentionally arrive in Iranian territorial waters and are captured by it.

Also in 2019, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps notified the rest of the world of the construction and commencement of an autonomous system of hardware for cyberwarfare and coverage of adverse jamming, a system called Seperh 110, which is supposed to cover all cyberwarfare operational units.

This year, the “Iran’s Centre for Autonomous Jihad and Research” has announced it has built a portable anti-jamming system which, as Iran claims, would even be able to identify and destroy drones.

Iran has already demonstrated its cyber capabilities: some operations have already been made against U.S. critical infrastructure, as well as the 2012 Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack, against some U.S. banks and telecommunication companies, which led to a loss of over 5 million U.S. dollars.

Again in 2019, the FBI was the target of covert access and data removal operations – probably coming from Iran – concerning U.S. satellite technologies.

Iran has also built the Shamoon computer virus, which is capable of destroying and cancelling entire internal computer systems. In some periods of 2019, Iranian attacks on computer networks were estimated at almost 500 million per day.

Meanwhile, Israel is developing the intelligence saturated combat model – albeit it is still in a non-operational phase – by combining artificial intelligence, data fusion from various sources, augmented reality and big data.

The 3D mapping that is provided is absolutely realistic. It should be recalled that it was Israel that responded – for the first time – to a cyberattack with a conventional counter-attack, to destroy the cyber headquarters of Hamas in early May 2019.

Hence currently the Middle East balance of satellite weapons and weapon systems that depend on space networks is infinitely more complex than we can imagine.




Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France

President of International World Group