With the help of nano satellites, Israel will be in a better position to keep watch for hostile missile launch preparations. Israeli Intelligence has reported “hard evidence” that Iran is galloping towards military nuclear capability and, in parallel, is developing cruise missiles to add to its existing arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles.
Cruise missiles were used in recent attacks by Houthi rebels (Iran’s proxy in the Gulf region) against Saudi targets. Israeli intelligence points to the use of at least seven cruise missiles, designated Qudas 1, that were powered by jet engines built in Iran based on a Czech engine, and 8 loitering weapon systems that were developed in Iran based on technology acquired in other countries. Intelligence experts say the systems, launched either from Southeast Iran or by Iranian allies in Iraq, are very accurate.
Examination of the cruise missile debris enabled analysts to identify the missiles as the “Sumar” or “Hoveyze” versions of Russian-made missiles. In 2001, Iran purchased at least 12 Russian-made KH-55 cruise missiles from Ukraine.
According to updated intelligence, Iran has approved finances to upgrade its existing arsenal of cruise missiles and develop new ones, understanding that while protection against ballistic missiles has reached a high level of maturity, the protection against cruise missiles is still lacking capabilities.
Israel has a number of spy satellites in space. The last one, Ofek 16 was launched earlier this year, but the revisit time of these satellites is not short enough to detect the preparations for a ballistic missile from Iran. Further complicating the problem is the fact that Iran only recently proved the capability to launch ballistic missiles from underground shelters.
The Israeli ministry of defense has ordered a large number of Nano and Micro satellites that will be launched into space to form “Swarms”.
The combined capability of such a swarm will, according to insiders, enhance Israel’s capability to get almost a real time image intelligence of preparations for the launch of a ballistic missile. The plan is to use the micro and nano satellites to achieve continuous coverage of “special interest” areas by a high rate of revisits. These small and relatively cheap satellites will operate in parallel to the full-size spy satellites of the Ofek series.
All Israeli spy satellites have been manufactured by Israel aerospace industries (IAI). This capability has been achieved by massive investment in the company's space division.
Critics say the defense ministry chose to overlook Iran’s massive investments and has asked for a proposal from Rafale, another state-owned company that so far has manufactured only small space subsystems. Rafale was selected to develop and build the Nano satellites dubbed LiteSat. The ministry declined any comment on the issue.
According to Rafale, the LiteSat system consists of a high-revisit constellation of high-resolution, low-cost microsatellites and a state-of-the-art modular ground facility that can be easily integrated with existing assets.
A Rafale source tells FrontLine that LiteSat’s unique small size and low weight (100 kgs) are enabled by the compact design of its camera. This creates less drag, which in turn allows a lower orbit, and enables higher-resolution images. LiteSat is equipped with advanced image processing algorithms and Geospatial big data analytics for intelligence extraction. The efficient electric propulsion allows a long mission life at a low altitude, even during sun-max, and its compact footprint allows for a cost-effective single launch of multiple satellites.
The LiteSat satellite will orbit earth in altitudes of 400-800 km and, according to the company, a constellation may include 4-100 satellites and the revisit time can be “minutes” depending on target latitude and the constellation size.
The Ofek series satellites now in orbit visit “areas of interest” in big intervals. Although there are a number of them, to reduce the revisit time, their optical or radar payloads still cannot maintain a persistent watch over the areas of interest, and when it comes to the ballistic missiles threat, this is a major problem.
Israeli sources say it takes 30 minutes to prepare a missile sealed in a silo for launch. When the enemy is aware of the intermittent “visiting” time of a spy satellite over their territory, they can easily time the launch preparations to avoid satellite detection of the pre-launch. The launch burn itself is easily detectable by space based infra-red sensors, but the secrecy of the pre-launch sequencing is critical to success.
Needing to complement the capabilities of the Ofek system, Israel is about to launch a relatively high number of nano satellites that will be manufactured by Rafale. They will be small and cheap, and operating these swarms will close the gap left by the full size spy satellites.
Whether the satellites will be launched from Israel is a question still in debate. The Israel Shavit satellite launcher is, according to the foreign press, based on the Isabel Jericho long range ballistic missile. This launcher is used to put the Ofek satellites in orbit but carries a very high price tag. Therefore, as Israeli sources tell FrontLine, commercial launchers operated by foreign companies will probably be used.
The option to launch Nano satellites from a fighter aircraft is still on “some” tables, but critics say that such a program was scrapped by the U.S. and is not viable.
An very senior Israeli source who spoke with FrontLine on condition of anonymity said that the planned swarms of Nano satellites will be very efficient if they are equipped with SAR radar systems “such a swarm actually form a huge antenna in space. A swarm is also very effective if the satellites are equipped with SIGINT sensors. In the optical case, a swarm is less effective.”
Israel is in the process of launching a great number of nano satellites with different payloads.
Arie Egozi is a defence writer based in Israel.