IF you thought the flight of America's space shuttle Discovery was September's most important space milestone, you don't live in the Middle East. For strategists in that region, Israel's September space spectacular - orbiting its first satellite - will have far greater military and political significance. Israel has released few details about the event; even the location of Israel's ``Cape Canaveral'' remains secret. Nonetheless, the satellite launch appears to have been a technological tour de force. At 340 pounds, the Israeli spacecraft, known as Offeq (Horizon) 1, not only outweighs Sputnik I and America's first satellite, Explorer I, but far outweighed the first spacecraft orbited by Japan in 1970 and India 10 years later. In March 1987, and again in July of this year, India failed in its first two attempts to orbit a 330-pound unit.
A further indicator of Israel's prowess is that it had to place Offeq 1 in a highly unusual orbit. The United States, Soviet Union, China, Britain, France, Japan, and India all launch their spacecraft eastward to take advantage of momentum from Earth's rotation. For Israel, however, such a course would have meant launching over Syria and Saudi Arabia, which could have led to political problems.
Launching westward over the Mediterranean meant that Israel needed a very powerful booster for the payload it lofted. What is more, the Israeli launcher, known as the Shavit (Comet) II, has only three stages, according to Israeli spokesmen. Comparable US and Indian rockets - assuming that the Shavit uses solid fuel, as is widely believed - use four stages, another sign of the relatively advanced state of Israeli rocket technology.
Though Offeq 1's experimental mission is apparently benign, the military implications for the Middle East are profound: Any rocket that can be used as a space launcher is potentially usable as a surface-to-surface ballistic missile. The launch of Offeq 1 emphatically demonstrated Israel's ability to deploy these weapons.
US officials have stated privately that Shavit II is the same rocket that Israel fired 500 miles into the Mediterranean last May in an unannounced test. At the time, other US aides were quoted as stating that as a surface-to-surface missile the rocket had a potential range of 900 miles, making it capable of striking distant capitals like Baghdad, Tripoli, and Riyadh, as well as targets in the southern Soviet Union.
Until the Offeq 1 launch, however, Israel had maintained nearly total secrecy about its capabilities: Israel has never acknowledged that it possessed such weapons, or that it has been working on an advanced rocket able to launch satellites.
In effect, Israel had maintained the same silence about its missile potential as it has about its nuclear-weapons capabilities. Neighboring states were under few illusions that they faced the threat of nuclear-tipped Israeli missiles, but Israel had never brandished this combined capability or demonstrated any element of it, for example, by conducting a nuclear test. With the launch of Offeq 1, however, Israel has dramatically changed this policy, by lifting, at least partly, the veil it had placed over its nuclear missile potential for nearly 20 years. Moreover, by demonstrating the ability to produce rockets considerably more powerful than those previously attributed to it, Israel has also placed its more distant antagonists on notice that they are now vulnerable.
Israel's decision to publicize this capability undoubtedly flowed in part from its increasing concerns over the spread of ballistic missiles to its regional adversaries - missiles it fears will be armed with chemical warheads. With US assistance, Israel is developing the Arrow antiballistic-missile system. In the meantime, the country is relying on a three-pronged strategy to meet this growing challenge: civil defense measures; the destruction of enemy missiles preemptively, when possible; and deterrence.
Earlier this year, Israeli leaders began openly alluding to the country's deterrent capabilities. The launch of Offeq 1 has now given substance to the threat of Israeli retaliation far more effectively than any such pronouncements.
Unfortunately, the event will inevitably legitimize the efforts of Israel's adversaries to accelerate their own efforts to obtain and deploy such systems. It has also undercut the current US initiative to curb the region's arms race in ballistic missiles. Indeed, after the Offeq 1 launch, Washington found itself in the awkward position of congratulating Israel on its entry into space only weeks after US Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci tried to persuade Chinese authorities to halt proposed sales of their new M-11 and M-9 missiles to Syria and Iran.
Israeli officials, possibly because they consider the spread of ballistic missiles in the region to be a fait accompli, obviously believed that these costs were outweighed by the benefits of a partial demonstration of Israel's deterrent capabilities.
Moreover, the Offeq 1 launch is also expected to lead to a second enhancement of Israeli security, the orbiting of an Israeli spy satellite.
Such a satellite would enable Israel to observe its adversaries' military deployments - including missile deployments - and to pinpoint targets for future operations. Most of Israel's adversaries can probably observe all of it today by flying reconnaissance aircraft with sideward-looking cameras along its borders or coastline, a capability Israel has been unable to match, since the territory of many of its potential enemies extends beyond the range of such airborne cameras.
In addition, a spy satellite would permit Israel to develop the precise maps needed for the terrain-following radars used in cruise missiles and other ``intelligent'' munitions which it is said to have under development. It would also give Israel valuable intelligence information to barter with potential regional allies, such as Iran.
America is justifiably proud of the space shuttle's successful mission. The event represents only an incremental change for US-Soviet competition in space, however, and its impact on the East-West military balance is likely to be imperceptible. In the Middle East, Israel's space launch, in contrast, is a giant step that is likely to reshape regional security relations for years to come.