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Israel’s next satellite will be locally made, but that will come at a cost

State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries said Thursday it would design and build Israel’s next communications satellite, the Dror 1, which will be completed in the next three years and handle Israel’s satellite communications for the next 15 years. Almost symbolically, at virtually the same time IAI released its statement, Gideon Sa’ar held a celebratory gathering in the town of Or Yehuda to thank his supporters following his failed bid to lead the Likud party.

Israel Katz (the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Likud) merely went through the motions during Sa’ar’s campaign to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud leader. He supported Sa’ar, but only unofficially. One reason was that the week before the vote on December 26, Netanyahu met with Katz’s son, Yair, who took over his father’s job as chairman of the IAI workers committee. Netanyahu hoped to dissuade IAI workers from backing Sa’ar.

Note that the same Yair Katz had this to say about Dror 1: “I want to congratulate all those officials who are helping to keep satellite manufacturing alive in Israel. Among other things, it’s because of our ability to reach the country’s decision makers. If they disappoint us, it’s fair to assume that these decision makers won’t enjoy the continued trust of the [IAI] workers in Likud primaries.”

Yair Katz may have been bragging when he said this, and the timing of the IAI announcement over the weekend may have been a coincidence. Still, the government’s decision to order the satellite from IAI can’t be justified on financial grounds.

Sources at the company say that the government will be spending $200 million. But this figure is misleading because before the satellite begins to serve its function there will be the costs of launching and insuring it, so the real cost is more likely to be $300 million.

And even that estimate is far from final. The history of satellite building in Israel shows that the final costs often exceed the budgets of tens of millions of dollars, and the completion time often takes many months longer that targeted.

Note: Three years after the explosion of the Amos 6 satellite on the launching line, which was also intended to be used by the Israeli government, the Israeli aerospace industry (IAI) has been awarded a new communications satellite contract.

The aerospace industry will develop and build the “Dror 1” satellite, designed to meet the satellite communications needs of the State of Israel for about 15 years. The State of Israel has been purchasing spy satellites from the aerospace industry for three decades, but this is the first time it has also commissioned its own communications satellite to replace the services it purchases from a communications space company.

The agreement between the government and IAI, the company said, implements a September 2018 government decision to advance Israeli space industry infrastructure and promote a long-term strategy for national satellite-based communication.

The satellite will be largely based on technologies developed locally by IAI, aiming to ensure Israel’s “complete independence” in the field of satellite communication and “preserve knowledge and expertise accumulated over the years” within the state.

The satellite will be developed by IAI’s Systems Missiles & Space Division, previously tasked with a long list of critical defense projects, including the development of the Barak 8 surface-to-air missile, the Arrow 2 and 3 anti-ballistic missiles, and a series of advanced satellite systems including observation and nano satellites.

IAI also partnered with nonprofit SpaceIL to develop the Beresheet lunar lander, which crashed into the Moon’s surface in April 2019.