Inadequacies In Space-Based Surveillance: Lessons From The 2023 Hamas Attack

While space-based technology is invaluable for many purposes, it does have limitations when it comes to instantaneous detection of small-scale, fast-moving events, like rocket attacks launched by non-state actors.

On October 7, 2023, the Islamic Resistance Movement, commonly known as Hamas, carried out a multifaceted surprise attack on Israel, resulting in the reported loss of over 900 lives and injuries to at least 2,500 individuals. This attack strategically eroded Israel’s perception as a nation with military dominance. 

Notably, it represented a significant failure of Israel’s military intelligence, as Hamas fighters managed to breach the Gaza-Israel border undetected, infiltrating numerous military and civilian locations, including 22 towns and settlements. During this incursion, they successfully damaged military infrastructure and equipment while taking an estimated 150 Israeli military personnel and civilians as captives.

In response to the attack, Israel’s reaction was marked by a sense of confusion and incredulity. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly called for an overwhelming response, leading to the declaration of war against Hamas and the imposition of a state of emergency. As anticipated, the Israeli Air Force initiated a series of attacks on targets throughout the Gaza Strip.

However, the lingering question remains: Why did the U.S. and its allies’ spy satellites fail to detect Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel?

In part, this can be attributed to the limitations of physics. Satellites positioned in geosynchronous orbit are too distant to capture intricate details, and the available satellites in low-Earth orbit are insufficient to consistently provide high-resolution imagery, as highlighted by industry experts.

In this article, we will analyze and explore the utilization of space-based sensing by Israel, its usefulness, and its broader applications in military and defense.


What is space-based sensing?

Space-based sensing, also known as remote sensing from space, refers to the use of satellites or spacecraft equipped with various sensors and instruments to observe and collect data about the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and the surrounding space environment. These sensors are designed to capture information without direct physical contact with the target areas or objects. 

Space-based sensing plays a significant role in our day-to-day lives. For starters, satellites equipped with weather sensors provide data on atmospheric conditions, temperature, and humidity, contributing to accurate weather forecasting and tracking of storms and natural disasters. Moreover, it helps in monitoring environmental changes, including deforestation, land use, and climate patterns. It is also used in infrastructure development, space research, etc. 


Application of space-based sensing in military

Military satellites, equipped with cutting-edge sensors, offer real-time surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. These satellites empower military forces to maintain vigilance, assess potential threats, monitor enemy activities, and elevate their situational awareness. They excel at gathering intelligence across various dimensions, from tracking enemy troop movements to scrutinizing infrastructure and resource assets. 

Furthermore, space-based sensors serve as vigilant sentinels, swiftly detecting and signaling potential missile launches, nuclear detonations, and other menacing events. The data harvested from these sensors aids military forces in accurately locating and precisely targeting enemy assets, thereby reducing collateral damage and enhancing the efficacy of military endeavors. 

Additionally, space-based navigation systems, exemplified by GPS, deliver precise positioning and geolocation capabilities, elevating the precision of military operations, including airstrikes and troop deployments. While military space-based assets are vulnerable to cyberattacks, space-based sensing is used to detect and respond to such threats, ensuring the security of military satellite systems.


Use of space-based sensing in Israel 

Israel has a space-based sensing capability as part of its military and intelligence infrastructure. Israel operates several reconnaissance and surveillance satellites to support its defense and security needs. These satellites are equipped with various sensors, including high-resolution optical cameras and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems, which are used for a range of military applications, including intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The details of Israel’s space-based sensing capabilities, such as the number of satellites and their specific capabilities, are often classified for security reasons. Israel’s space assets contribute to its national security by providing valuable data for monitoring potential threats, tracking military movements, and enhancing situational awareness in the region.

Israel’s military and intelligence agencies utilize space-based sensors to gather critical intelligence on various aspects of the conflict. This includes monitoring movements of Palestinian militant groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and tracking their infrastructure, weapons, and activities. The satellites enable continuous monitoring of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This information is used to track the movements of armed groups, detect potential rocket launch sites, and assess security threats to Israel. Geospatial data derived from satellite imagery is essential for military planning and operations. It aids in accurate map creation, route planning, and understanding the terrain in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

In the Israel-Palestine conflict, the use of space-based sensing technology supports Israel’s efforts to maintain security, deter potential threats, and respond effectively to developments in the region. It helps enhance situational awareness, improve the precision of military operations, and safeguard civilian populations by providing early warning of incoming threats.


Why space-based sensing failed to detect the recent Hamas attack

While space-based technology is invaluable for many purposes, it does have limitations when it comes to instantaneous detection of small-scale, fast-moving events, like rocket attacks launched by non-state actors. These limitations explain why the U.S. and its allies spy satellites may not have detected the surprise attack by Hamas.

The orbits of most surveillance satellites, particularly those in geosynchronous orbits, position them at relatively high altitudes above the Earth. This height, while advantageous for broad-area coverage, made it challenging for the sensors to capture intricate details in real time. The Earth’s curvature and the distances involved affected the resolution of images and the ability to track small-scale, high-speed events – which is what happened during the Hamas attack. While there are satellites in low-Earth orbit that offer higher-resolution imagery, they have limited coverage and are unable to provide continuous monitoring of specific regions. There are often gaps in the surveillance network, and it can be challenging to predict where and when a fast-moving event, like a rocket launch, might occur due to such an issue. 

Furthermore, the speed at which events unfold on the ground can make real-time detection via space-based sensing difficult. The time it perhaps takes for a satellite to orbit, detect, and capture an image, along with the time it takes for data transmission and analysis, can lead to delays. In the case of a surprise attack, every moment counts, and these delays can hinder timely response. 


A Multifaceted Approach

While pace-based sensing is a powerful tool it may not always be the most suitable choice for immediate detection of small-scale, fast-moving attacks. For Israel to better its defense strategy, having a multifaceted approach will play an imperative role in enhancing their security. The IDF should develop a multifaceted approach that combines various military equipment and technology for early warning, intelligence gathering, and protection against threats; beyond alternatives, Israel should focus on having a combination of space-based sensing, ground-based radar systems, aerial surveillance, and advanced air defense systems.

The deployment of ground-based radar systems, such as the AN/TPY-2 radar, which can provide real-time tracking and detection of incoming threats, including missile launches can prove to be particularly useful for the IDF. 

Furthermore, employing their aerial surveillance systems like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones that are equipped with advanced sensors will further strengthen their defense detection. These UAVs offer the advantage of agility, allowing them to quickly respond to emerging threats and capture high-resolution imagery of potential targets. These systems can work in synergy with ground-based radar and other sensors to provide comprehensive coverage and response capabilities.

Another essential alternative for Israel can be the use of advanced air defense systems like the Iron Dome, which is specifically designed to intercept and neutralize short-range rockets and artillery shells. The Iron Dome, combined with other missile defense systems, provides an additional layer of protection and response to incoming threats, reducing the risk and impact of surprise attacks.


Final Words

In light of the recent Hamas attack in 2023 and the questions it raises about the effectiveness of space-based sensing in military applications, it becomes crucial to explore alternative strategies that may better suit Israel’s defense needs. While space-based sensing is a powerful tool with various applications, it may not always provide the real-time detection required for fast-moving, small-scale attacks. By having a multifaceted approach, Israel can provide a more comprehensive and effective defense strategy. By harnessing a synergy of diverse technologies, the IDF can elevate its early warning capabilities, bolster intelligence gathering, and fortify its response to security threats. This holistic approach can enhance Israel’s overall security posture in a continually challenging landscape, particularly in the enduring conflict with Palestine.


(Views presented in the article are author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business upturn Asia)