Vietnam is purchasing a military surveillance satellite from Israel, which will build and launch the latest version of the Ofek. This is a photo satellite with a resolution of 50cm. This is accurate enough to show buildings, roads and vehicles. Israel has at least two of the latest Ofeks in orbit and has exported them for nearly a decade. Some of these export customers prefer not to be identified. In terms of resolution and other known factors Ofek, is little different than the many commercial photo satellites that provide unclassified photos to the media and general public.
The main competition for this contract was a French firm, although there were offers from Russia, Japan and the United States. Israel has some supporting technologies, like digital image analysis software that they can offer in situations like this that are often decisive winning against competing offers.
Israel has built and launched its own military satellites since 1988. The most recent surveillance satellite launch was in July 2020 when another photo satellite, the Ofek (Horizon) 16 was put into orbit. Ofek 16 was described as an upgrade of the Ofek 11 design, which first went up in 2016. At the time Ofek 11 was described as an upgraded Okek 10, which went up in 2014. Beyond that the Israelis offer few official details of Ofeq and other intelligence gathering satellites.
Israel was the eighth nation to develop and build its own satellite launch capability. Israel uses only its own launchers for military satellites. Since these launchers are based on Israeli Jericho ballistic missile designs, it was cheaper using foreign launch services for commercial satellites. For example, Israeli communications satellites are now put into orbit by American SpaceX rockets, which have the cheapest prices as a result of SpaceX innovations like reusable first stages that land under their own power after separating from the second stage carrying the satellite.
Ofek satellites have proved very reliable and are now built to recover from problems that often lead to the loss of satellites from other nations. For example, in late 2016 Israel launched Ofek 11. While the satellite achieved orbit it soon lost communications with ground control. The Ofek was built with “fail-soft” self-repair software and it was hoped whatever was wrong could be fixed. After nine days ground control regained contact, Ofek 11 was sending back digital images. Since then, Ofek has remained fully functional but it is still unclear if it will remain that way for eight years, the designed useful life of this Ofek.
In addition to photo satellites, Israel also has a military-grade radar satellite called TekSar. One of these, in 2008, was launched using an Indian launcher. This was more of a good-will gesture towards a new ally and major purchaser of Israeli defense technology. That use of an Indian launcher for a military satellite was a one-time event and the Indians were eager to show the world their satellite launch capability. In addition to Israeli-built Ofek and TekSar birds, Israeli intelligence also uses Israeli built Eros B and Eros A civilian photo satellites for some military needs.
The first Ofek went up in 1988 and the last few have been incremental upgrades of the Ofek 9 which entered service in 2010. The Ofek 9 weighed about 300 kg (660 pounds) and used a new generation of sensors that were able to see objects as small as 55 cm (twenty inches). Ofek 10 was a little heavier with new electronics providing better resolution and Ofek 11 was more of the same. Ofek 16 has higher resolution cameras, which can apparently get below 50 cm resolution as well as providing higher quality photos using more capable software. All the Ofek spy sats are mainly for keeping tabs on Iran and what Iran is doing in Syria and Lebanon.
There have been failures. In 1998 Ofek 4 failed and in 2004 so did Ofek 6. This led to design changes that included the “fail-soft” capabilities that saved Ofek 11. Each of the failed launches cost Israel about $100 million, which includes the cost of the satellite and the launcher, which are based on the Israeli Jericho ballistic missile.
The satellite launcher version of Jericho is called Shavit. The first two stages of the Shavit are also used for the Israeli Jericho 3 IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile). With a range of nearly 5,000 kilometers, the Jericho 3 can drop a nuke anywhere in the Middle East. Jericho is a 30-ton, solid fuel, two stage missile with a one-ton payload. There are several dozen Jericho 3s in service, mainly as a nuclear deterrent that can be launched from underground silos.
Israel has often used its spy satellite capabilities for diplomacy. In 2012 Israel built and launched a photo spy satellite for Italy that cost $182 million for the satellite and launch, which was carried out in 2015. This was part of a deal where Italy agreed to buy an equal value of Israeli military gear as part of a deal where Israel bought $993 million worth of Italian jet trainers. Italy managed to cover this with the purchase of two AWACs and a spy satellite from Israel.
In 2014 it was revealed that Israel had quietly and anonymously contributed some vital targeting information for the air campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq, and possibly Syria as well. It wasn’t that the U.S. doesn’t have spy satellites that could have provided this, but the Israeli fleet of spy satellites does not have worldwide responsibilities, spend most of their time over Middle Eastern nations and have been doing so for many years. The Israelis had satellite data immediately that it would take weeks, months or longer for American satellites to compile. The Israeli contribution was kept quiet and data provided had been “scrubbed” to remove any evidence that it was from Israel. But none of the Arab nations contributing warplanes to the operation were surprised and, except for Iran, which openly insists ISIL is an invention of the Americans, British and Israelis, no one complained.