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Israeli Government Comptroller Says Israel Space Agency Underfunded, Vulnerable To National Security Failings

The Israeli-French VENMS satellite. Photograph courtesy of IAI.

Israel’s civilian space programme is in crisis due to chronic underfunding and the continuous outsourcing of satellite communications acquisitions to foreign satellite manufacturers, according to the annual report of the Israeli State Comptroller.

In the report, released on 22 October 2018, the State Comptroller Joseph Shapira wrote that, as of July 2018 the Israeli government has only provided the space agency with a fraction of the tens of millions of dollars in additional funding that its own commission recommended, according to a lengthy story in The Jerusalem Post.

Of greater concern, the Comptroller’s report also asserts, is that the continued outsourcing of communications satellites to foreign companies could hamper Israel’s ability to maintain an independent satellite communications capability in the case of a critical national security emergency.

In contrast, the report continues, if Israel funds and continues to develop its own satellite capabilities, the payoffs would reach beyond the national security arena to include business, communications, science and technology, and Israel’s global standing.

The under-funding problem dates back to 2008, The Jerusalem Post reports. A 2009 government commission recommended increasing the funding by tens of millions, but according to the report, there has been only a small funding increase, forcing the space agency to outsource many critical tasks.

The Comptroller’s report also criticized the agency for deciding to take out a long-term lease of a satellite from a foreign company to replace AMOS-6, which was destroyed in a launch-pad accident in 2016. AMOS-6 was supposed to replace AMOS-2; its loss left only AMOS-3 and -4 in operation.

This criticism is made against the Israel Space Agency (ISA), despite the fact that the AMOS communication satellites are operated by Spacecom, an Israeli company, and the decision to lease a satellite from a foreign company was a purely commercial one.

Then, in March 2018, the agency executed a long-term lease for the foreign company Space Systems Loral (SSL) to replace what would have been AMOS-7.

The comptroller criticized the government for failing to move forward with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for designing further satellites instead of being dependent on leasing foreign companies’ satellites.

The Jerusalem Post reports that, in view of the severity of the situation, the Comptroller sent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a formal letter in April 2018 warning of the long-term national security consequences.

The Comptroller did not mention that in May 2018, the Israeli government authorized the subsidizing of IAI’s efforts to develop AMOS-8, which will cost tens of millions of additional dollars compared to the cost quoted by SSL.

There is some political controversy about whether this last-minute decision was related to threats from IAI workers to take industrial action, and was a political distraction created by the governing Likud-led coalition.

Rather, the report said that the new plan lacked any detail, deadlines, or benchmarks, lacked plans for what would come after AMOS-8, and was missing a broader strategic concept for the space agency’s future.

In addition, the Comptroller’s report highlighted the failure of the Science and Technology Ministry to update the terms of the space agency’s license since 2000, despite the many changes that have occurred in the space sector since then.

Regarding interactions between the civilian space agency and the security establishment, the report found two problems.

The first is that the security establishment has not resolved issues relating to space agency staff receiving adequate security clearances.

The second issue is that despite a state decision that a defence establishment observer should serve on the space agency’s board of directors, no observer has been appointed.

Against the background of the debate over Israel’s fledgling civilian space agency is the fact that the Defence Ministry and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) operate a separate space programme, including a wide range of satellites to directly serve military needs.

The Comptroller did not respond for a request from The Jerusalem Post for comment as to how the military space programme worked into the broader picture and its criticism.

The Science and Technology Ministry responded by saying that while it respected the Comptroller’s conclusions, it was outdated, as most of its recommendations had moved forward with cabinet approval.

Specifically, the ministry referred to moving forward with the IAI AMOS-8 satellite acquisition, and to developing a long-term strategy within only three months at the direction of the minister, Ofir Akunis.

It added that Israel will continue to remain a leader in space and satellite technology. The ministry’s statement did not address specifically whether there were plans for Israeli-made satellites beyond AMOS-8.

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