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France beats US to Abu Dhabi spy satellite deal

3 min

Abu Dhabi Monday confirmed a 700 million euro order for two French spy satellites in a deal seen as a key victory for France’s defence industry, which saw off competition from US giant Lockheed Martin to secure the contract.


France secured a much needed coup for its arms industry on Monday after Abu Dhabi placed an order for two spy satellites from the Paris-based aerospace company Astrium, which saw off competition from US firm Lockheed Martin to secure the contract.

It is the first time France has signed a military contract with the emirate since 2007. The deal, which is worth more than 700 million euros, will see the supply and launch of two high-resolution Pléiades-class satellites.

The agreement, dubbed Falcon Eye, could not have come at a better time for Paris. Figures published on Monday by France’s Defence Ministry showed that the value of orders for French military equipment fell by 26 per cent in 2012. 

But perhaps more satisfyingly, the deal shows “French firms in the sector are able to win against America’s Lockheed Martin in the United Arab Emirates”, as one Defence Ministry worker enthused to French daily Le Figaro.

It is a commercial victory that may come as a surprise. American spy satellites are considered “the most technologically advanced in the world by far”, Alexandre Vautravers, a weapons expert and researcher at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), told FRANCE 24.

US-made models have the edge in two areas: the accuracy of the images they capture and the speed at which these can be transmitted back to Earth.

However, countries buying spy satellites from US firms such as Lockheed may not always benefit from these technological advantages, Vautravers explained.

“The US generally offers ‘export’ or ‘restricted’ versions of their top models for these types of contract,” he said. French satellites, therefore, do not have to compete with the very best America has to offer.

Deal for more than ‘just satellites’

The French victory could also be down to the after-sales services offered in the contract, Vautravers believes.

"It's not just satellites that have been sold, but also access to image processing software, the training of specialists in intelligence analysis, transmission systems and encryption " said the expert.

In comparison, “the United States generally imposes very stringent restrictions on using its technology," he added.

But France will not be handing over key software packages outright.  The contract will be seen as “a partnership between the French intelligence services and those of Abu Dhabi, which will start with the training of staff on-site,” said Vautravers.

Nevertheless, the emirate will be hoping for a degree of control in the use of the satellites that would not have been possible had it gone for the US option.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what purposes Abu Dhabi has in mind for its new high-tech acquisitions.

“The satellites' efficiency are hampered by weather conditions, as well as the use of camouflage,” explained Vautravers. They therefore will not offer the kind of far-reaching surveillance offered by spy drones, which operate within the Earth’s atmosphere.

The satellites will, however, be able to provide the emirate with its own source of accurate information on military installations and troop movements in regions of strategic interest.

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