TEL AVIV, Israel, June 23 (UPI) -- As tension with Iran grows daily, Israel has launched a new spy satellite that the military says has "unprecedented operational capabilities."
Hype or not, the 650-pound Ofek 9 will join at least two other Israeli surveillance satellites beaming their high-resolution cameras on Iran's nuclear program and its growing strategic missile forces -- much to Tehran's annoyance.
The announcement of the launch Tuesday came four days after a U.S. Navy task force headed by the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman sailed southward through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea en route to the Persian Gulf.
The Truman carries 60 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike jets. An Israeli navy missile corvette and the German frigate Hessen accompanied the 11-ship U.S. formation, according to Israeli reports.
Tension between Iran and the United States has intensified after the United Nations, the United States and the European Union imposed economic sanctions on Iran over the last two weeks for refusing to abandon its controversial nuclear program.
Israel, which has threatened to mount pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear installations, has also been in a state of high alert after a deadly confrontation with a Turkish-organized flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid for the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, blockaded by Israel for 3 years.
The six-ship flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli navy in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean May 31. Naval commandos shot dead nine Turks aboard the flotilla's Turkish flagship.
That triggered an internal outcry against the Jewish state, while its erstwhile ally, Turkey, was widely seen as realigning with Iran.
The Truman battle group's deployment toward the gulf came as Tehran announced that it was sending aid ships to Gaza.
That raised fears of another high-seas confrontation with Israel. At least one aid ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists from Lebanon is also expected to head for Gaza.
Israel has warned it will use force to prevent these vessels running the blockade.
The launch of a new Israeli satellite Tuesday doesn't necessarily signal the prospect of imminent Israeli military action against Iran. But the Jewish state is increasingly on edge because of a buildup of missile arsenals by Hezbollah, the Lebanese movement that is Iran's main proxy in the Middle East, and Hamas, which is armed by Iran.
Hezbollah has some 45,000 missiles and rockets, Israeli estimates claim. These reportedly include some 1,000 Iranian and Syrian medium-range missiles, while Syria has allegedly deployed 800 Soviet-designed Scud-C ballistic weapons aimed at Israel.
Israel's internal security service, known as Shin Bet, reported June 16 that Hamas and its allies in Gaza have amassed some 5,000 rockets with ranges of up to 25 miles. That's enough to hit the outskirts of the urban conurbation around Tel Aviv.
Meantime, Yair Shamir, chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries, was reported to have claimed in May that Iran is developing an upgraded version of a KH-55 long-range cruise missile it was said to have obtained from Ukraine in 2006.
Shamir said Iran seeks to extend the missile's range of 1,560 miles and develop an air-launched variant that it can fire from its own airspace without risking interception.
Ofek-9 was launched from the Palmachim Air Base south of Tel Aviv aboard a Shavit booster rocket, the civil version of IAI's nuclear-capable Jericho ballistic missile.
"This provides Israel with greater operational flexibility, since we now have another set of eyes on a target," said Chaim Eshed, director of space programs at the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate.
"This means that we have increased the rate we can visit a target," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Ofek-9 joins the IAI-made TecSar 1 satellite launched from India in January 2008 amid considerable secrecy.
But more important is the IAI-built, 650-pound Risat-2 satellite launched by India April 20, 2009. It's equipped with the same multi-spectral aperture radar as TecSar 1, providing coverage in all weather and at night through cloud.
But it's important for another reason. Due to Israel's geographical location, it is only able to launch intelligence-gathering satellites westward against the Earth's rotation. That limits the range of orbits over Iran. Launching from the Satish Dhawan Space Center in southeast India means Israel can launch eastward, adding another dimension to its surveillance of Iran.