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Israel's lone satellite offers security-blanket protection

TEL AVIV, Israel—Sheltered by the umbrella of American high technology, Israel is pretty sure Iraqi missiles won't rain down here.

But the Jewish state is looking to Ofek-5, its sole spy satellite, to provide an added layer of protection.

Launched aboard an Israeli rocket last May, Ofek is among the small number of spy satellites capable of "rapid orbital detuning," spook-speak for saying it can be moved to the most interesting area quickly.

While Israel still depends on the network of sophisticated American early-warning satellites to tell it when and where a ballistic missile has been launched, Ofek-5, which circles the earth every 90 minutes, gives a back-up picture that has allowed the Israeli defense establishment to state with reasonable certainty that western Iraq appears to be free of Scud missile launchers.

Orbiting the earth at an altitude of 300 miles, the 700-pound, $12 million Ofek-5 uses all-weather, day-and-night cameras to send back high-resolution color photographs capable of pinpointing objects as small as one meter across.

"If Saddam Hussein decides to have breakfast in the yard of his palace, the satellite will detect the table on which his meal is served," the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot quoted a senior military official as saying shortly after Ofek-5 was launched.

Over the past few months, according to Israeli media, Ofek-5 has trained its eye on Syria, Iran and especially Iraq.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry, in a statement last May, said Ofek-5 "threatens Arab national security as a whole" and provides evidence of Israel's "hostile and aggressive intentions" toward Arab states.

Israel receives intelligence from the United States already.

A defense pact signed after the 1991 Gulf War promises Israel immediate warnings of ballistic missile launches.

That means Israelis have about seven minutes to get into shelters.

Israeli military planners and officers from the U.S. Central Command also jointly monitor intelligence in a war room in Israel.

A U.S. Navy ship is off Israel in the Mediterranean Sea using sophisticated Aegis radar, primarily to detect aircraft. U.S. photo-reconnaissance, early-warning, electronic-eavesdropping and other surveillance satellites are trained on Iraq.

But Ofek-5, said Israeli military analyst Ze'ev Schiff, "increases Israel's strategic independence. ... When it comes to the United States, there is cooperation, but it is their decision what to give and what not to give."

Others disagree.

"You won't hear this from other Israelis, but Ofek-5 is too expensive for the information that we get," says Reuven Pedatzur, a specialist in strategic studies at Tel Aviv University, and one of the satellite's few critics.

"Unless we have eight of them, and park two over Iraq and Iran, there's nothing we get from them that we can't get from the United States. Its value is more psychological than operational."

Ze'ev Bonen, former director of the armament development authority of Israel's Ministry of Defense, says "preparing for war is always expensive" and remains a fan of Ofek-5.

"In the past, before they started developing satellites, we used to have airborne reconnaissance. Now, to fly above the territory of another country is more difficult and dangerous."

In quieter times, Israel also has had some fun with Ofek-5. Showing off the satellite's capabilities, Israel presented outgoing army chief of staff, now defense minister, Shaul Mofaz with high-resolution pictures of the neighborhood where he grew up—in Tehran.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.