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[SSI Brief] Can Israel Go Civil?

May 10, 2016


Oded D. Oron

Feature Series

Space Security Initiative Brief

International studies perspectives on space policy of major powers

Israel’s space program was established in the 1980s in response to security challenges. A shortage of resources forced Israel to focus on miniaturizing the technology and developing small, light satellites with high resolution, remote sensing, and communication capabilities. In recent years as part of a general foreign policy effort to brand Israel as a “start-up” nation and with the intention of capitalizing on the financial gains of the space industry, the country began investing resources in civil space projects. Despite the growing budget for non-military projects and a successful record of launching satellites into space, Israel’s military dominated infrastructure, top actors, and key stakeholders, preventing the country from truly going civil.

Although the civilian application covers about 50 percent of all developments, the manufacturers, launching sites, and designers of the space technology all operate within a military context. The future engineers of Israel are recruited at ages as early as 16 to top secret intelligence units and trained within semi-military facilities. Israel’s repertoire and expertise in surveillance and defense systems filters the innovative ideas and top talents into an existing revenue generating industry whose priorities are clear and self-serving.

A quick survey of the local academic institutions invested in space study and research into affiliated technologies affirms these notions. Tel-Aviv University’s leading program exploring the links between science, technology, and security, is headed by Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, a Reserves Major-General at the Israel Defense Forces and the current chairmen of Israel’s Space Agency. The agency is sponsored by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space, and is responsible for the coordination and supervision of all the activities of the civilian space program.

The other major research institution in the study of space and engineering and producer of working hands to the local industries is the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The city is home to two major players in the military and defense industry in the country and the developers of satellite related technologies. RAFAEL’s space activities are focused on space propulsion, composite materials, micro-satellite technologies, and airborne launchers. Elbit develops and supplies a broad portfolio of airborne, land and naval systems, and products for defense; its El-OP divisions developed the optics related technologies for satellites.

When reviewing the annual budget, it is indeed apparent that there was a gradual increase between 2006 and2013. Some of the increments were based on the funding of a specific project. A critical unanswered questions is whether the security reality of Israel permits a budgetary commitment for civilian projects. After the impact of the global financial crisis and the succession of military operations every two years or so over the past decade, the country has been forced to cut budgets in all ministries. In this context, it would be very surprising if the budgetary constraints would spare the space industry, and, specifically expensive non-military civilian projects.
*This article is part of the IPI Space Security Initiative Series on Space Policy of Major Powers.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.