The United Arab Emirates is seeking tech transfer before restarting talks on purchase of two Pleiades-type satellites. (CNES artist's conception)
DUBAI AND PARIS — The UAE is insisting on technology transfer before restarting negotiations with France to purchase two spy satellites, according to a high level UAE official.
The deal gained international attention in January after Defense News reported that the US $930 million contract signed in July 2013 was in jeopardy after the discovery of US-made components in the system.
This is the first major contract between France and a Gulf Cooperation Council country concerning sensitive intelligence satellite technology.
A UAE source said at the time that the two high-resolution Pleiades-type Falcon Eye military observation satellites contained two specific US-supplied components that provide a back door to the highly secure data transmitted to the ground station, meaning all data could be transmitted to a third, unauthorized party.
Since the announcement of the discovery, French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian has been shuttling between Paris and Abu Dhabi to seal the deal. Le Drian has worked hard to renew close ties with the UAE — seen as a key regional player and a significant export prospect — as the beleaguered French industry needs foreign deals. France has sold little military equipment to the gulf nation since Abu Dhabi bought the Mirage 2000-9 fighter in the 1990s.
The US has since granted an export license for the satellite components, which solved that issue.
Now, UAE defense officials negotiating the contract have requested technology transfer as part of the satellite deal. The level of transfer, however, is yet to be decided, with the UAE attempting to get as much as it can.
According to the UAE official who is close to the negotiations, the UAE Defense Ministry is awaiting France’s decision on technology transfer before resuming negotiations to purchase the satellites.
“Technology transfer is amongst the main points of talks between the UAE and other countries,” the official said.
The UAE source said they are still “waiting for a decision to be taken by the French with regard to the satellite issue, which has been interrogated by the UAE a few months ago due to a predicament in the main component.
“The French defense minister had since paid many shuttle visits to Abu Dhabi and held talks with the senior armed forces officials in this regard,” the source said.
Despite not clarifying the UAE’s position regarding the compromising components at this time, the source said: “The UAE seeks technology transfer and this is a pre-condition for further talks on the satellites deal.”
According to the source, during his last visit to Abu Dhabi in April, Le Drian promised to consult with Paris on the level of technology transfer. “He added that this should be in a gradual basis if accepted,” the source said.
He said that a response is expected before the end of the year
Under the deal, signed July 22 last year, by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, and Le Drian, delivery was set for 2018, along with a ground station.
The satellites are provided by prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space and payload-maker Thales Alenia Space, and as part of the deal 20 engineers will be trained to use the new equipment.
A senior French defense official said of the talks with the UAE, “There is not a concern. We have time.”
François Auque, head of Airbus Defence and Space’s Space Systems division, confirmed that the contract has not yet gone into effect and negotiations are ongoing.
“We have received the American export license because there are American components,” Auque told the media on May 14. “Once we received the license, the client wanted to examine a certain number of points with us. We are in a region where one likes to discuss. It is not illogical that it takes time.
“There is not a renegotiation,” Auque said, and declined to give details of the talks.
A spokeswoman for Thales Alenia Space also said the US export license had been delivered, and declined further comment. Thales Alenia Space, which builds the satellite payload, is a joint venture between Thales and Finmeccanica of Italy.
Airbus and Thales Alenia Space teamed up and pitched a package of two satellites and a ground station based on the Pleiades satellite system developed for the French military.
In general, prospective export clients ask for technology transfer to develop local industry, said Luc Viellard, strategic studies and solutions director at consultancy Compagnie Européenne d’Intelligence Stratégique.
“It’s part of a reflex response,” he said.
The level of technology handed over begins with a local assembly, he said. Satellites are sensitive, but Kazakhstan signed up for an assembly center as part of a deal for two satellites under its national space program, Earth Remote Sensing Satellite System.
A French Defense Ministry official was not available for comment.■