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Israel Launches New Spy Satellite Ofek 16

Israel has launched its new spy satellite Ofek 16 into orbit in an attempt to improve the country’s military reconnaissance. The region remains volatile, particularly after a fire the previous week at an Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz.

Details of the Launch

Against the backdrop of new tensions with Iran, Israel launched a spy satellite into space on Monday, July 6. The Ofek 16 satellite was successfully launched into orbit at 4 a.m. from the Palmachim Air Force Base in central Israel, the Israel Defense Ministry confirmed. Data transmission had already started on schedule. However, several tests are planned before Israel can fully utilize the satellite for its intended purposes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the successful launch significantly increases Israel’s ability to deal with the country’s adversaries “both nearby and far away”. Meanwhile, current Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz also recognized the launch’s importance by stating that technological superiority and intelligence capabilities were “essential to Israel’s security.” Moreover, Israel would “continue to strengthen and maintain Israel’s capabilities on every front and every location.”

What Does the Satellite Do?

Like various previous models, the spy satellite is intended to contribute to improved military reconnaissance. Amos Jadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, said the use of Ofek 16 provided Israel “special strategic and intelligence capabilities” – skills rather crucial during a time when a possible escalation with Iran is emerging.

Israel is one of only thirteen countries that operate reconnaissance satellites and has worked with several countries on satellite technology, including Italy and France. The head of Israel’s space program, Shlomi Sudari, stated that its satellite network the country now possesses could observe the entire Middle East and beyond. The latter is all the more critical since Iran also successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit in April, after years of unsuccessful attempts.

Although the new satellite’s primary function is likely to monitor Iran and developments in its nuclear and missile programs, defense officials denied any symbolism in the launch, given growing reports that Israel could be responsible for a number of recent explosions in Iran.

Israel has previously proved its ability to penetrate sensitive Iranian facilities, including a 2018 raid in Tehran. Moreover, Israel and the U.S. are also believed to have been responsible for the Stuxnet computer virus that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program a decade ago.

Assessing Tensions With Iran

Only recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi stated that Israel would continue to take any measure necessary to protect itself against the Iranian nuclear program.

If Israel were responsible for the fire in the Natanz nuclear facility, it would mark another in a series of daring strikes against Iran’s nuclear program. The latter would further increase the risk of Iranian retaliation on either Israeli or Western targets. However, Iran’s current situation with a crippled economy and no financial flexibility does not leave them in a promising position. In addition, Iran is experiencing rising domestic tensions against the government and the pandemic, which may prohibit Iran from executing any retaliation at this point, at least not without utilizing a proxy to carry out the attacks. The latter could explain why Teheran has been reluctant to call out Israel for the attack in Natanz publicly. After all, the mullahs would lose face if they accused Israel – which has been Iran’s default modus operandi since the Iranian Revolution – but without the option of retaliation due to the aforementioned factors.

In any case, Israel’s new satellite will provide increased coverage and early warnings of any Iranian activity such as planned Iranian missile launches and tests, and information on activities at sites where components of Iran’s nuclear program are developed and produced. Against Tehran, that has long vowed to eradicate Israel off the map, any form of increased security for Israel is hence positive news.