US-Israeli Covenant Forces Review of Civilian Satellite Deal With China
In 2005, issues regarding Israeli weapons exports boiled over between Israel and the USA. Israel’s status as an observer in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program was suspended until a resolution in 2006 resulted in the USA assuming de facto veto power over all Israeli exports – even those that do not use American technologies, and fall outside of ITAR as non-military items, but could have potential security implications.
Israel’s canceled $100 million deal to upgrade Venezuela’s F-16s at a time when America was still shipping spare parts is often touted as the first example of that covenant in action. A more recent illustration of that covenant’s effects was recently provided when China sought to purchase time-share use of an Eros-B satellite from the ImageSat International (ISI) joint venture. IAI’s Eros series is derived from Israel’s Ofek-5 military satellite, and provides sub-1.8m imaging similar to France’s Spot satellites, and Space Imaging’s IKONOS. Although the Eros is not classified as a military item, the ISI Satellite Operating Partner (SOP) program allows images to be streamed directly to a customer’s ground stations, and it was submitted for review – a review that may yet scupper the deal…
According to Defense News “U.S. OKs Israel-China Spy Sat Deal: But Caveats Could Kill Shared Operating Scheme, the US has said that it will approve the sale, but only if ISI agrees to enact “shutter control” at Washington’s request, and require 24-hour notice of Beijing’s satellite targeting plans.
Depending on how the exact mechanisms work, this could amount to, in effect, submitting all of their Eros-B satellite viewing plans to American authorities. At its most benign, the Americans could simply declare certain specific geographic areas to be triggers for shutter control review, and see only those requests. As such, the exact mechanisms and triggers demanded are likely to be quite important.
China has yet to reply, and those conditions may well destroy the deal. Defense News has opinions that make a case for both sides of that issue.
It should be noted that Taiwan was the first SOP partner nation for IAI’s ImageSat International venture, and Israel’s failure to provide a second satellite as promised led to forced compensation payments, as well as a shareholder lawsuit. When Taiwan attempted to join Eros-B as an SOP client in April 2007, however, it was refused – presumably due to the incipient deal with Beijing. India is another Eros SOP nation.
If the deal with Beijing falls through due to US restrictions, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Taiwanese SOP deal.