The impact of dual-use aspects of high-resolution commercial observation satellites in the...

The impact of dual-use aspects of high-resolution commercial observation satellites in the middle east


Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg
Director, Program on Conflict Resolution and Negotiation and
BESA Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University Ramat Gan, Israel
Tel: +972-3-5318043, Fax: +972-3-5357931
[email protected]

From 1960 to the early 1990s, military satellites, including space-based communications, navigation, meteorology, early warning and, most important, strategic intelligence were developed and deployed by the two superpowers. Indeed, the dedicated military reconnaissance satellite systems, operated by the US and the Soviet Union from the early 1960s, constituted the most important technological development since thermonuclear weapons (with the possible exception of MIRVs). Early US satellite programmes, code named Corona, Samos, and Discoverer, were developed in response to perceived Soviet threats, following the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile and the launch of Sputnik in 1957.2

During the 1950s, the US used high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 to obtain information on the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, but these aircraft were limited and, as was demonstrated dramatically in 1960, vulnerable to ground-based anti-aircraft missiles. Satellites in orbit were, in practice, invulnerable to attack, and the first successful Corona launch took place in August 1960. A combination of technological limitations in the development of anti-satellite systems, as well as tacit agreements between Washington and Moscow established the legitimacy of overhead reconnaissance through the use of satellites. 3

By 1972, when the Corona programme ended and was replaced by new technology, 94 satellites had been launched successfully.4 The satellites took thousands of photographs from orbit, after which retrorockets triggered the re-entry of the film capsule, which was recovered either in mid-air, or on the surface of the ocean.5 US reconnaissance satellites received hundreds of thousands of images, covering a wide variety of strategic and tactical targets, including Soviet and Chinese missile locations, the site of the detonation of the first Chinese atomic weapon.6 The Soviet Union developed similar systems shortly after the US, and, much later, the Chinese also produced reconnaissance satellites.

In the past two decades, these systems have been augmented by infra-red and broad spectrum imagery, space-based synthetic-aperture radar, and other technologies to allow for all-weather, all-hours imaging. In addition, navigation satellites allowed for increasing accuracy in a variety of platforms and kill-systems.

Satellites also became Non-intrusive Technical Means of verification (NTM). During the Cold War, the first stages of confidence building and information exchange between the US and USSR began tacitly and unilaterally through the use of overhead satellites.7 In the 1972 SALT and ABM agreements, the two sides formally agreed not to interfere with each other’s NTM.

Recently, satellite surveillance has been used increasingly in tactical warfare and regional conflicts, such as in the 1991 Gulf War and in the Balkans. Space-based imaging can provide targeting information in regional contexts, and the data is also useful for post-attack damage assessments. Just as satellite reconnaissance played a major role in the strategic balance during the Cold War, the same technology can be applied in the post-Cold War era of regional conflict.8

As analysis of the implications of these technical developments, and the potentially unrestricted policy regarding high-resolution commercial imaging satellites began, questions emerged. The issues include the impacts of such systems on regional conflicts, access by terrorists and rogue states. “With the increasing availability of civilian satellite imagery services, …what were once supersecret capabilities limited to the superpowers are becoming publicly accessible at affordable subscription rates.”9

Until the early 1990s, access to the images and to high-resolution satellite surveillance technology has been restricted to the major powers (the US, Russia, and China). Since then, France, India and Israel have acquired some capabilities in this area, and other states have announced programmes to develop this technology. In addition to the commercial sale of SPOT images, some photos provided by Russian military reconnaissance satellites were made available for purchase. In response to these developments,

The US government began to declassify many of the hundreds of thousands of images returned by military reconnaissance satellites, while at the same time, also loosening the restrictions on commercial licensing of high-resolution satellites systems. A number of U.S. firms, subsidised with contracts from the government, began to develop ambitious programmes, and in 1999, the IKONOS I satellite, with a GSD of 1 metre, was successfully launched into orbit, and started to return images.

In theory, the increased availability of high-resolution commercial space imaging services of the data that is transmitted can have positive as well as negative consequences. For the enthusiasts, this development will contribute not only economic but also political benefits, linked to transparency.

However, like many other technologies, these systems and the data are inherently dual-use, with both civil and military applications. Henry Sokolski includes satellites in a list of what he terms non-apocalyptic weapons and warns of the consequences had satellites been used by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.10 For the first time, many countries and non-governmental actors, in areas such as the Middle East, North Asia, Central Europe, and South America will have access to very detailed and almost real time images of neighboring states. Iran and Iraq will be able to obtain information and photos of strategic sites in the Persian Gulf, United States, Europe and Israel. A former CIA official notes, “The issue is going to heat up the first time we get a real crunch between two friends, like Pakistan and India.”11

The impacts, both stabilising and destabilising, will depend on a number of technical factors, including the resolution, the form in which the data is sold (original digital data, or derivatives), the nature of the distribution system (direct real-time ground links to receivers, or delayed transmission via filtering stations), available software, and similar factors. However, as Ray Wilson, of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute notes, “Iraq would be interested in information about Saudi Arabia. Iran would like to see data about Israel. India and Pakistan would like to have information about each other. If you were concerned about troop buildup on your border, you could put in a standing order for the satellite to take a picture every time it passed over.”12

Thus, it is clear that the implications of the proliferation of this technological capability, and the policy options for limiting the impact on security and stability should be carefully considered before these capabilities are widely available. In discussions and analysis of high-resolution commercial satellite imaging, beyond the economic benefits, advocates frequently point to the increased transparency provided by this technology. However, high-resolution imaging satellites are dual-use technologies, and in making policies for the commercialisation of this technology, the potential impacts must be examined and understood.

The Impact on the Middle East

In the high-conflict environment of the Middle East, the potential advantages of transparency are limited, and the negative impacts may be greater than the benefits. With the legacy of overlapping conflict zones (Arab-Israeli, Persian Gulf, Turkey-Syria, North Africa, etc.) and the resulting wars and terrorism, this is a region characterised by a high level of instability.

In this environment, the availability of timely information provided by high-resolution satellite images such as IKONOS will be used extensively for military intelligence. In the Middle East, efforts to negotiate arms control agreements and various confidence-and-security-building measures (CSBMs) to increase stability have not made significant progress. The meetings of the Multilateral Working Group on Arms Control and Regional Security between 1992-1994 ended in an impasse following Egyptian demands that Israel relinquish its deterrent capability. In the Middle East, the United Nations Arms Registry has made little headway, with most states either ignoring this voluntary measure towards transparency in conventional weapons, or only providing information that has been made available from other sources. Thus, for the foreseeable future, the use of satellites for verification of formal regional arms control agreements is likely to be limited.

In this context, the dual-use nature of high-resolution satellites, with both military and civil applications, is highlighted. Among the countries in the region, Israel is probably the most sensitive to the dual-use impact of high-resolution commercial imaging satellites. This sensitivity was expressed in the early 1990s, when the U.S. government’s decision to remove the limitations on high-resolution commercial imaging led to concern among Israeli defence officials regarding the impact on national security. Israel’s very small territorial extent, which allows for detailed and repeated coverage with a relatively limited number of images, makes it vulnerable to attacks based on data accessible through commercial high-resolution imaging satellites.

Its deterrence postureand strategy is based on maintaining a high degree of uncertainty in the eyes of potential enemies, particularly with respect to the nuclear and ballistic missile potential. Israeli policy makers feared that Arab states, and Iran, as well as terrorist groups, would be able to exploit these high-resolution images to obtain very detailed intelligence of Israeli capabilities and deployments. Their ability to target Israeli sites with a high degree of precision would alter the balance of power fundamentally, particularly if these images were combined with GPS data to target cruise or ballistic missiles.14

The military applications of commercial satellite imaging, and the potential destabilising impact is not confined to the Middle East. Indeed, the emergence of capabilities for receiving detailed images from the battlefield, and distributing them (or analyses based on this data) directly and immediately to the commanders on the battlefield, is increasingly recognised as one of the major innovations in conventional warfare. In 1995, US Secretary of Defence William Perry noted the central role that space forces play, stemming from their “exceptional capabilities” for collecting, processing and distributing data.

If regional powers, rogue states, and terrorist groups have access to this data and capability, they will be able to exploit it for the same purposes.15 U.S. government officials have increasingly recognised the potential impact of the proliferation of this technology. Keith Hall, Director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, stated that “Real-time imagery capabilities provided by E-O and other technologies is causing a revolution in warfare.”16 In analysing the 1991 Gulf War, he noted “Satellite reconnaissance was a major factor in the rapid US victory.” However, his public statements do not address the impact on U.S. interests, allies or on regional stability in areas such as the Middle East.

In contrast, other analysts emphasise the destabilising impact of these capabilities on a global basis. For example, “Islamic Jihad could get its hands on a one-metre resolution picture of a US Air Force General’s headquarters in Turkey, convert the shot to a precise three-dimensional image, combine it with data from a GPS device and transmit it to Baghdad, where a primitive cruise missile, purchased secretly from China could await its targeting coordinates.”17

Gupta notes that the impact “depends on how the new remote sensing services will be distributed through the political landscape, how belligerent states will use the high-resolution images, and how observed states will respond to routine overhead imaging by their neighbours.”18 He warns that unlimited sales of high-resolution imaging could disrupt “delicate balances of power”, complicate the containment of international crises, and fuel developments in offensive weapons capability.19 Similarly, former CIA director James Woolsey concludes, “This very comfortable world people have been living in where fixed target installations on land are safe” will vanish with the proliferation of high-resolution commercial imaging.20 As noted above, the Middle East is characterised by a high level of conflict, and instability is increased by a number of revisionist powers (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya), as well as numerous terrorist groups with access to funds and advanced technology, including the Bin Laden network. As a result, high-resolution satellite imaging whether dedicated military platforms or commercial systems, are viewed primarily in the context of their dual-use nature. As will be seen in the following discussion, security concerns are the foundation for Israel’s efforts to limit the distribution of high-resolution images.

Commercial Imaging Capabilities in the Middle East
Israel has the most active and advanced space programme in the region, including a dedicated military imaging system (Ofeq), and the commercial EROS programme. The military establishments of other countries which do not have the resources for dedicated reconnaissance satellites, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are likely to be major customers for commercial imaging products, while applying the data to military intelligence applications.

However, the market for civil applications of high-resolution satellite imaging systems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf is also significant. As in other regions, space-based imaging has long been used for urban planning, location and identification of natural resources, including water, (particularly in large and remote deserts), agriculture, and environmental monitoring. In some of these applications, commercial high-resolution imaging can be used to improve the efficiency. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have developed an advanced infrastructure in civil applications of remote-sensing, and the UAE has created a commercial centre to provide remote sensing services (both military and civil) to the Arab and Islamic world (all states in the region except Israel).

The Israeli Program
Israel has had an active and growing space programme for two decades. As in the case of the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War, the environment of conflict led Israel to develop imaging satellites capable of real-time intelligence.

The centrality of intelligence and early warning was emphasised as the countries in the region began to acquire ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. On occasion, the U.S. shared strategic and space-based intelligence information with Israel. However, despite the close defense cooperation with the American government, Israel did not have routine access to real-time satellite intelligence data. A Defence Ministry official was quoted saying “For years we have been begging the Americans for more detailed pictures from their satellites and often got refusals – even when Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Tel Aviv….”21 At times, the IDF has turned to other sources, including Russia, which reportedly sold hundreds of satellite pictures of Syria, Iran and Iraq for about $1 million, as part of a secret cooperation agreement.22

The Middle East peace process and the transfer of territory to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority has reduced Israel’s ability to rely on ground-based early warning and intelligence installations, increasing the reliance on space-based systems. This dependence will increase if Israel relinquishes the Golan Heights to Syrian control, including the early-warning station on Mt. Hermon. Following an agreement with Syria, Israel will need systems, including satellites, to provide early warning of any Syrian military activity.

As a result of these factors, in 1988, Israel launched the Ofeq-1 (Horizon) test satellite, using the three-stage Israeli-designed and manufactured Shavit launcher. The launch site is located on the Mediterranean Coast, and in order to avoid flying over hostile countries, a highly unusual flight path was used (northwest over the Mediterranean) placing the satellite into a retrograde orbit at an inclination of 143 degrees. Ofeq-1 was reported to be a test vehicle designed to lead to the development of an orbital reconnaissance capability, and it reentered the earth’s atmosphere in January 1989. Ofeq-2 was launched in April 1990, similar in weight and technical characteristics to Ofeq-1, and had an orbital lifetime of 3 months. Ofeq-3, launched in April 5 1995, was apparently the first operational reconnaissance system, with a payload containing ultraviolet and high-resolution imaging sensors. Its higher perigee (369 km) and orbital maneuvering capability allows for a longer lifetime. (According to reports in the Israeli press, this version of the Shavit launcher included a small new IAI third-stage rocket engine with 674 lbs of thrust.23 ) Its orbit takes it over sites in the Middle East, including Iraq.

On January 22 1998, the attempted launch of Ofeq-4 (reportedly equipped with an advanced imaging system) ended in failure when the booster malfunctioned.24 Had the last launch been successful, it would have provided Israel with two operating imaging systems operating simultaneously, significantly enhancing capability. As a result of the launch failure, the Israeli military now hopes to attempt another launch in early 2000 before Ofek 3 reenters or is no longer operational.25

As in the case of the U.S. (where the firms and individuals involved in the military reconnaissance satellite programme are centrally involved in the commercial efforts), the Israeli military and commercial high-resolution imaging satellite programs are closely interrelated. Based on the technology developed for dedicated military reconnaissance systems, Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) has been planning commercial space ventures since the early 1980s. The establishment of the Space Technology Division at IAI in 1984 marked a major step towards developing this capability.

Although a government-owned firm formally under the control of the Ministry of Defence, IAI enjoys a significant amount of autonomy, particularly with respect to new commercial ventures. As direct government subsidies are reduced, the firm’s directors are responsible for independent resources for research and development, and for insuring employment to Israel’s largest industrial firm. In the past two decades, the efforts to increase exports and joint ventures with foreign firms have accelerated.26

IAI’s first proposal for the EROS programme was submitted in 1993. Reflecting the limits on government funds, and the high costs of development, outside investors were sought. (The major Israeli defense technology firms, including IAI, have often sought external partners in the private sector, particularly in the U.S., as a means of expanding both marketing opportunities and access to development capital. Thus, the effort to find foreign partners or investors in this case was not particularly unusual.) In order to remain the senior partner, and insure control over technology, operations, and data, joint programmes with the major commercial firms in the U.S., such as Space Imaging (Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon), OrbImage, Earthwatch, or the French SPOTIMAGE, were rejected.

In 1996, IAI agreed to work with Core Software Technology (CST), based in Pasadena, California, in the development of the EROS (Earth Remote Observation System) satellite system.

They developed an ambitious system, based on a constellation of eight commercial light LEO high-resolution imaging satellites, and designed to provide with frequent coverage of any point on the globe, compared to the more sporadic coverage that would be available from a system of one or two satellites.

For this very ambitious program, IAI, CST, and ELOP Electro Optical Industries, Ltd. (Israel) created West Indian Space (WIS), incorporated in the Cayman Islands, to manage development, launch and operations for the EROS project. Following the failure of the Ofeq-4 launch, the Israeli government’s interest in EROS as a means of lowering the cost of a satellite observation system, increased.27

EROS is advertised as a low-weight “light-sat” incorporating breakthroughs in systems concepts that allow a 200kg satellite to match the performance characteristics of satellites weighing several tons. (Similarly, IAI’s Amos Communications satellite was the lightest communications satellite built at the time of launch, in 1996.) Customers can purchase “turn-key” Earth observation systems, based on “vertical Integration of IAI’s satellite technology and CST’s archiving, distribution, image management and exploitation technology.” West Indian Space is offering to retrofit existing ground stations, used for accessing SPOT and LANDSAT images, at a cost of $10 million.28

Israeli launch capacity is currently insufficient for the orbital altitude and weight of the EROS payload, and as a result, the first satellites are scheduled to be placed into orbit using Russian launchers (in itself, a major source of controversy).29 The first stage of the programme consists of two enhanced EROS A+ satellites, to be launched in late 2000 and 2001, followed by the EROS B satellites. By 2004, the full system of 8 satellites is scheduled to be fully operational. This constellation will provide data to customers and Satellite Operating Partners (SOPs) in GIS-ready form. The satellites will be launched into low earth orbits, at altitudes of between 480 and 600 kilometers.

EROS A+ will deliver imagery at a resolution of 1.8 metres, and using the “pushbroom sweep method” of imaging, will cover a 12.5 km swathe with panchromatic imagery, provided to customer at near-real-time. EROS B1 will deliver 0.82-metre resolution from an altitude of 600 km, covering swaths of 16.5 square kilometres, followed by EROS B2 through B6 (five satellites), with 0.82 panchromatic imagery and 3.68 meter multi-spectral imagery. The EROS A+ sensors will consist of 10,000 detector elements in arrays that provide day-only or day/night performance, with time delay integration. The EROS-B series will incorporate 15,000-element modules on a single focal plane, to provide for different sources such as an IR layer over conventional (visible light) images.30

In 1999, WIS and the Israeli government reportedly signed an agreement providing exclusive access to images of the Middle East region obtained by the first three EROS satellites for eight years.31 In addition, company officials are basing their marketing plans on the expectation that states will opt for a system that is less expensive than the development of their own military surveillance programmes, which could cost five to 10 times more. WIS officials declared that they will “respect the wishes of the U.S. and Israeli governments” by not providing data to states that are subject to export restrictions, such asLibya, Iraq, and Iran.32 Details regarding possible SOPs and customers have not been published, but there has been some speculation in press reports, particularly with respect to Turkey33 and India34 . (In August 2000, the press reported that that Israel had won a contract to provide an imaging satellite system to Turkey, but the Turkish government reopened the bidding, and a French firm was able to enter a lower bid.) There are also reports that Israel rejected requests from other states to purchase EROS and Ofeq-type platforms.35

The Arab States and Iran

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has invested considerable resources in creating a remote-sensing infrastructure, including an advanced centre, located in Riyadh. In late 1994, a Saudi company known as EIRAD, owned by Prince Fahd Bin Salman, sought to acquire a major interest in Eyeglass (now OrbImage), in return for an agreement to build a ground station in Riyadh and exclusive rights to receive and distribute OrbView satellite images in the Middle East. (EIRAD acquired a 20% interest in the company.) The main customer is expected to be the Saudi Defence Ministry.36 As noted above, this involvement raised fears in Israel regarding the use of this system to gather military intelligence information that would be used by various Arab states and terrorist groups against Israel. In addition, the Saudi Centre for Remote Sensing (SDRS), located in Riyadh, was established in 1983, and is developing an advanced capability for data analysis. In 1999, SDRS signed an agreement with RADARSAT International (Canada) for exclusive ordering, scheduling, reception, and product generation of RADARSAT I (7 metre resolution) data for the Middle East.