WRMEA, April/May 1997, pgs. 29, 85

Special Report

Israel Seeks U.S. Permission to Launch Rockets From NASA Facility in Virginia

by Shawn L. Twing

The Clinton administration currently is considering a request by the Israeli-government-owned defense conglomerate Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) to launch its “Shavit II” rocket from a NASA flight center in Wallops Island, VA. The Shavit II, or “Next,” is a four-stage rocket designed to launch lightweight satellites into low Earth orbit. IAI’s request is the most recent in more than three years of attempts by the Israeli company to gain access to the U.S. commercial and military launch markets. If approved, the door will be open for Israel to compete in what industry experts predict will be an extremely lucrative market in the near future, potentially to the detriment of U.S. companies in the satellite-launching business, and possibly in violation of U.S. commitments to prevent missile proliferation.

In Israel’s Interest

For Israel, it is imperative that the Clinton administration agree to IAI’s request for several reasons. First, and most importantly, Israel hopes to recoup the billions of dollars it has invested in its space and missile industries. The Shavit series of launchers and the successful 1993 launch of Israel’s Ofeq-3 spy satellite have consumed substantial sums of money which IAI hopes to regain by selling the Shavit II on the international market. This will be virtually impossible, however, if IAI doesn’t find a launch facility outside Israel. According to John Pike, director of the space policy project at the Washington, DC-based Federation of American Scientists, “Israel verges on being a space-locked country.”

The reasons, Pike explained, have to do with the physics of space launch. Rockets must travel in the neighborhood of 18,000 miles per hour to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. Given the speed and direction at which the Earth rotates, launching due east adds approximately 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator) to a rocket’s velocity. For political reasons, however, Israel is forced to launch due west, which means it loses nearly 1,000 miles per hour. This translates into a 10 to 20 percent loss in payload-carrying capabilities, according to Pike. “If Israel wants to be a player in the launch market, they have to find another place to launch,” he said.

IAI has another very specific reason for wanting access to a U.S. launch facility. Earlier this year, IAI and Pasadena, CA-based Core Software Technology formed a company called West Indian Space Limited, a 50-50 joint venture incorporated in the Cayman Islands. West Indian Space hopes to launch Israeli-built satellites on Israeli-produced launchers as part of a plan to make commercial satellite imagery available via the Internet in an easily accessible and user-friendly format designed by Core Software Technology. If successful, West Indian Space could quickly gain the upper hand in what some estimates suggest will be a $6 billion commercial satellite imagery market.

The first of the companies’ 10 planned satellites will be launched into orbit on a Russian rocket, but Core Software chief executive officer Steve Wilson told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that “we would like to use the Shavit down the road.” He said that neither of the partners in the joint venture want their satellites in orbits available through launching from Israel. Further, it would significantly reduce costs if IAI is able to launch its satellites from the United States on its own delivery vehicles.

Causes for Concern

There are two primary concerns for Clinton administration officials considering the IAI request: proliferation and U.S. commercial interests. On the proliferation side, the United States is a party to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a 25-member international suppliers cartel established in 1987 to slow the spread of nuclear-capable missile delivery systems. Allowing Israel, which has never signed the MTCR, to launch the Shavit II from the United States appears to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of U.S. commitments under that agreement.

The goal of the MTCR is to restrict the proliferation of missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and related technology. Included in its definition of missiles are space launch vehicles. There is, however, a loophole for space launch systems, but it does not affect this particular case. According to the MTCR guidelines, the regime is “not designed to impede national space programs or international cooperation in such programs as long as such programs could not contribute to delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction” (emphasis added). Israel’s Shavit is one such system.

The convertibility of commercial launch vehicles into nuclear-capable ballistic missiles varies with individual missiles, but the Shavit could be converted easily into that role. According to the most recent publication of Jane’s Sentinel, a country-by-country assessment of economic and military capabilities, the Shavit could be “modified for military purposes and converted into a powerful ballistic missile” with a range of 4,500 kilometers and 1,100 kilograms. MTCR guidelines use a baseline of a 500-kilogram payload and range of 300 kilometers, which the Shavit clearly and dramatically exceeds.

Israel has argued repeatedly that the Shavit rocket is not related to Israel’s military missile systems. But IAI also produces the Jericho I and Jericho II missiles, which are the foundation of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. It is impossible, officials say, to buy the Shavit without supporting the development of and/or underwriting investment in the Jericho I and II. And, as FAS president John Pike put it, “the Shavit certainly looks a lot like the Jericho II.”

Another potential loophole is Israel’s “adherent” status under the MTCR. Although it’s not a full-fledged member, Israel and several other countries have announced unilaterally that they adhere to the MTCR’s guidelines, which created a new, informal sub-class under the MTCR. Adherents are exempted from the legal ramifications associated with violating the regime’s provisions, but are not conferred the benefits of MTCR membership.

In addition to Israel's adherent status, others believe there are unreported bilateral agreements between the United States and Israel. Carnegie Endowment scholar and respected authority on nonproliferation Leonard Specter told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that Israel and the U.S. may have “signed a secret agreement” giving Israel “privileged status” in its missile technology relationship with the United States. That agreement was alluded to by President Clinton on March 15, 1993 when he announced that the United States and Israel “have begun a dialogue intended to raise our relationship to a new level of strategic partnership.” The president’s remarks came during a visit by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was later reported in Israel’s Hebrew newspapers that Clinton promised Rabin that Israel could compete in America’s commercial space launch market. Preparing the groundwork for that promise, the Clinton administration announced in 1993 that it would allow for the importation of Israeli-built space launch vehicle components into the United States, a move that met with severe criticism from nonproliferation experts and U.S. industry officials.

The focus of U.S. nonproliferation concerns was articulated two years ago when IAI teamed up with American defense contractor TRW, Inc. and tried to gain permission to launch satellites for the U.S. Air Force. A member of the president’s National Security Council pointed out the contradiction inherent in the United States buying space launch vehicles from a “warm” assembly line that also produces nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, especially from a non-member of the Missile Technology Control Regime. That argument was crucial to denying IAI’s 1993 request, and it remains valid.

U.S. Commercial Interests

U.S. industry representatives also are concerned that allowing Israel access to launch sites in the United States would help IAI compete unfairly with U.S. companies. IAI, they say, can charge less per launch than American companies partly because the Israeli company does not pay U.S. taxes (some of which are used to build and maintain America’s national space launch infrastructure, including NASA’s flight center in Wallops Island).

Not only does IAI not have to pay American taxes, Israel in general and Israel Aircraft Industries in particular have been recipients of enormous sums of American tax revenue. Since 1948, Israel has received in excess of $80 billion (unadjusted for inflation) in foreign aid from the United States. Further, since the first time Israel asked for and received a “one time only” provision in 1977 to use $107 million in U.S. foreign military aid in-country for its Merkava main battle tank, the U.S. has given Israel $4.882 billion in taxpayer grants to buy products from its own defense companies (a provision not given to any other recipient of U.S. foreign aid). IAI, Israel’s largest defense company, has been the principle beneficiary of this American largess.


It is difficult to predict the Clinton administration’s decision on IAI’s pending request. As with other aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, deciding whether or not to allow IAI access to U.S. launch facilities probably will focus more on unrelated topics, like Israel’s role in the peace process, rather than on the dangers or merits of the individual request. Depending on the political mood in Washington, the United States may try to “reward” Israel—maybe for a surprise decision not to build a Jewish settlement in Har Homa—or conversely, may try to “reprimand” Israel if Prime Minister Netanyahu continues his defiance and intransigence on the U.S.-brokered peace process.

Linking these largely unrelated topics could be dangerous to U.S. strategic and economic interests. Allowing Israel access to Wallops Island could, at the very least, erode the perception of the United States as an honest broker in Arab-Israeli negotiations. It is impossible for the Clinton administration to encourage arms control and nonproliferation in the Middle East among the Arab countries and Iran, while simultaneously supporting Israel’s missile programs by allowing IAI space launches in the United States. The two simply are not reconcilable.

It also is important to consider the economic interests of American companies in the space launch industry. More launches mean more revenue for American companies and more jobs for American workers. Allowing foreign launches, especially less expensive U.S.-taxpayer-subsidized foreign launches, will erode America’s competitive edge is this rapidly developing market.

Additional information