The reputation of Mossad, Israel's main intelligence service, and even the enormous military potential of its Defence Forces on the ground and in the air, is well known. But much more in the shadows is its significant space power, a vast fleet of spy satellites equipped with different observation and listening technologies, dedicated to preserving the national security of the country of the Star of David.
But what caused Israel's abundant and ultra-secret electronic eyes and ears in space and on board its countless remotely piloted aerial systems, the drones, to fail miserably? What prevented its expert image analysts from identifying and alerting their chain of command to the criminal assault perpetrated and executed by Hamas terrorists, which has cost hundreds of lives and puts many more at high risk?
What could have confounded the sophisticated algorithms used by the artificial intelligence tools dedicated to deciphering the bizarre codes of the messages that Israel's sworn enemies criss-cross? According to the Spanish experts consulted, it is possible that the control systems of the satellites or their communications with the ground have been subject to cyber-attacks by Hamas hackers or their allies, suffered interference, or were blinded and disabled for hours. If so, both sides are keeping quiet about it.
The head of the Israel Defense Forces since January this year, 56-year-old General Herzl Halevi, has no less than seven spy satellites at his disposal. Their powerful active and passive electronic eyes are supposed to monitor everything that happens, moves and is considered a threat to the security of the nation, the protection of its borders and the stability of the countries of the Middle East.
To give us an idea of whether Israel's seven ingenious devices dedicated to paying the utmost attention to its vital interests from above are too many or too few, suffice it to say that they are as many as the defence ministries of Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain combined.
Ofek spy satellites
Prime Minister Netanyahu's downward-facing electronic spies in space are called Ofek, the newest of which is Ofek-13, which has been in orbit since 28 March and should already be in service, although there is no official confirmation.
They are under the control of the Space and Satellite Administration of the Defence Research and Development Directorate headed by 61-year-old Air Reserve General Daniel Gold, an electronic warfare specialist and the mastermind behind Iron Dome, Israel's efficient anti-missile umbrella.
Standing between 400 and 600 kilometres high and weighing just under 300 kilos, Ofek-13 is equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology. Its parabolic antenna radiates electromagnetic emissions that scrutinise day and night what is happening on the ground and provide data and images to military intelligence technicians, regardless of the existence of clouds.
Equipped with an electronic pointing system, Ofek-13 has improved performance over its older siblings, Ofek-10, launched in April 2014, and Ofek-8, launched in January 2008, which is at the end of its operational life. The estimated resolution of the Ofek-10s is between 1 and 0.5 metres, the smallest distance their sensors can discriminate.
It is an accuracy that should have enabled them to detect some of the preparations and movements of Hamas terrorists, for example of the vehicles used to breach the fences and obstacles enclosing the Gaza Strip and assault Israeli territory in blood and fire. But this has not been the case. According to Spanish specialists consulted, "they offer less image quality than the Spanish SAR radar satellite Paz".
The three radar platforms - also known as TecSAR - are complemented by four other electro-optical observation platforms located between 350 and 600 kilometres away. They are the advanced Ofek-16 and Ofek-11, in orbit since July 2020 and September 2016, respectively. They are joined by Ofek-9 and Ofek-7, placed in space in June 2010 and 2007, respectively. All are the work of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), the country's leading aerospace and defence industrial corporation, with a strong export capability for its many weapons systems.
Space and airborne listening systems
Much more difficult to tear away is the thick curtain surrounding satellites capable of listening in on the communications of potential antagonists to the Jerusalem government. Officially, the Israeli military does not have any space-based platforms for such purposes, but it is not credible.
It seems reasonable to assume that some commercial satellites in the Amos family - for example, the 6.5 tonne Amos-17, launched in August 2019 - carry on-board equipment to detect targeted internet messages, landline and mobile phone conversations, etc. Or the numerous micro- or nano-satellites placed in low orbits and developed by Israeli research centres and universities. It is one of the best-kept secrets of the Defence Forces, known in Hebrew as the Tzahal.
Why did Israel's military and security units react so slowly to the swift and brutal attack by Hamas terrorists on 7 October? Prime Minister Netanyahu has given no explanation, but the head of military intelligence, General Aaron Haliva - a 56-year-old paratrooper with 38 years of service - has blamed himself for the failure to prevent the massacres and has resigned.
He takes responsibility for the failure of the Military Intelligence Corps' two elite and super-secret organisations, Unit 9900 and 8200, to be effective. The young analysts of Unit 9900 are responsible for analysing the hundreds of images provided day in and day out by the fleet of spy satellites and the dozens of military reconnaissance drones that fly the skies over Israel and its neighbours. They make what is known as visual intelligence or VISINT (VISual INTelligence) a reality.
Unit 8200, on the other hand, is dedicated to signals intelligence, or SIGINT (SIGnal INTelligence), whose job is to decipher the changing codes used by the enemies of the State of Israel. Both organisations recruit hundreds of young men of conscription age (18-21), mostly women, and subject them to an arduous selection process.
The hundreds of analysts under the nomenclatures 9900 and 8200 are also in charge of analysing digital images and audios relayed to them by strategic and tactical reconnaissance drones, in particular the Heron and Searcher. Also made by IAI, they are loaded with various high-resolution optronic systems, radar and signal interception equipment. Once recovered from the surprise attack, Israel's spy satellites, drones and military analysts are busy identifying targets for the expected major attack that is about to be unleashed.