LONDON AND WASHINGTON — The United Arab Emirates literally took its surveillance capabilities to a new level last week, ordering two satellites from a predominantly French industrial team.
But the deal may also signal a warming of relations with the Arabian Gulf state after a chill caused, in part, by soured negotiations over a proposed purchase of Dassault Aviation Rafale fighters.
The €800 million (US $1 billion) satellite deal signed July 22 will see EADS Astrium and Thales Alenia Space build and launch two Falcon Eye high-resolution optical reconnaissance systems for the UAE military to give the gulf state one of the most potent capabilities in the region by 2018.
Further evidence that France is getting its equipment sales to the UAE back on track: Two days after the satellite deal, the Emiratis agreed to purchase 17 Thales GM200 air defense radars in a sale said by the French Defense Ministry to be worth €300 million.
France has been a traditional supplier of weapons to the UAE. In 2009, for example, France set up a small air and naval base there as part of a wider defense relationship between the two.
However, no significant deals have been secured after relations cooled due, primarily, to difficulties in agreeing to the sale of 60 Rafale fighters.
The US, meanwhile, has continued to cement its position as the prime weapons supplier with deals for fighters, remotely piloted vehicles, missile defense systems, airlifters and other weapons either delivered, signed or under negotiation.
The British, who have had relationship problems of their own with the UAE in the past, have also benefited from the French difficulties with an offer of the Eurofighter Typhoon now a strong contender to replace the Rafale deal.
Prime Minster David Cameroon, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and other ministers have traveled to the UAE as part of the diplomatic and political offensive.
A small number of Royal Air Force Typhoons are stationed in the UAE and the two sides are negotiating a military treaty and a defense industrial cooperation package.
Now, though, the signing of a contract to meet the long-running Falcon Eye requirement and the upcoming radar deal looks to signal defense trade ties are getting back on course between France and the UAE.
The system is set to deliver an updated version of the Astrium Pleiades surveillance satellite already in service with the French military.
The two satellites have considerable strategic importance, giving the UAE the ability to look deep into Iran and other regional neighbors.
UAE becomes the first nation in the Arabian Gulf and the second, after Israel, to independently own and operate military-grade spy satellites in the region capable of capturing images measuring less than 1 meter across.
Such sub-meter remote sensing capabilities are essential for early warning, yet their value for military targeting operations depends on the frequency with which satellites can revisit specific areas of interest, said Tal Inbar, director of space programs for Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies.
“These satellites offer extremely high resolution, but because they’ll be operating in polar low-earth orbit, their revisit time will be about 48 hours,” Inbar said. “That gives them significant strategic early warning, but they’ll still be limited in their ability to respond rapidly to dynamic events driven by Iran.”
Plans call for the satellites to operate together by early 2018, capturing images as low as a half-meter across from orbiting altitudes of some 700 kilometers.
Western and Israeli sources noted that the Emirate has amassed six years of experience in sub-meter remote sensing operations through a business deal with ImageSat International, a Netherlands Antilles company operating Israeli-built Eros satellites. These sources said that under two separate leasing contracts dating back to 2006, the UAE gained access to Eros-A and Eros-B satellites and imagery generated over its pre-assigned geographic footprint.
Eros-A is no longer in service and it was unclear at press time whether UAE had renewed its annual leasing agreement with ImageSat for 2013 and beyond.
UAE officials have denied the deal.
Elsewhere in the region, Israel operates multiple electro-optical satellites and one synthetic aperture radar satellite, all of them built by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and capable of capturing images measuring less than half a meter across.
Astrium will build the Astrobus-based satellites for the UAE and the Franco-Italian Thales Alenia Space venture will provide the payload. The contract also covers satellite launch, ground stations and training for 20 UAE engineers.
French media reports said the two governments have also agreed to a deal in which French military personnel will help interpret images and share the intelligence.
The European team beat out a bid from Lockheed Martin and DigitalGlobe.
The deal retains France as UAE’s military space provider with EADS Astrium previously supplying communications satellites to the Yahsat military and commercial operation. The second of two systems was launched last year.
One of the factors that likely caused the UAE to opt for the French solution was the freedom of action it offered over data access compared with its US rival, said Ted Karasik, the research director at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
“The UAE has opted for the French system because in the strategic environment it finds itself in, with others unwilling to give or share the information it requires, this arrangement allows it to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in a more robust way. The French have been more amenable to UAE’s needs in this regard,” Karasik said.
The Dubai-based analyst said the deal gives UAE the full spectrum capability it required in space to match its emerging ground and aerial capabilities.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters on a flight to Abu Dhabi for the satellite signing that the deal has enabled the two governments to rebuild trust after earlier problems.
Le Drian said that, upon entering office in May 2012, “Trust was broken. Nothing was happening. ... This evening we reached a milestone, which is the building of trust.”
Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Paris-based think tank Institut des Relations Internationales & Strategiques, said the difficulties of defense equipment exports has not affected the wider strategic defense partnership between the two countries
“They have continued talking thanks to the strategic defense partnership the two sides have had since 1993. The partnership is alive, even if it has not always been simple to discuss defense exports,” he said.
The impasse over the Rafale was primarily to do with funding development of an uprated engine for the fighter, Maulny said.
David Roberts, the director at the Royal United Services Institute’s Qatar office, said that in the long term, it may be the revival of relations between the two nations that is the most important outcome of the satellite deal, rather than the sale itself.
“The UAE’s relationship with France has not been brilliant, and there are still people smarting from the aftermath of the difficulties caused by the Rafale deal. So, to my mind, the most interesting thing about this deal was they actually got it done,” Roberts said.
INEGMA’s Karasik agrees. “The deal does reinvigorate a relationship between France and the UAE, which has previously been on the rocks.”
He said, though, that only time will tell whether the deal will come to be seen as a consolation prize or opens the door to a renewed challenge from the Rafale for the UAE fighter requirement.