'Sabotage' fears hit France-UAE spy satellite deal
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French experts have told FRANCE 24 they believe disgruntled competitors, possibly in the USA, may be behind the discovery of “security compromising components” in two satellites being sold by France to the United Arab Emirates.
According to an article in US web site Defense News published January 5, Emirates officials discovered that the French-made “Falcon Eye” military surveillance satellites, due to be delivered in 2018, include US-manufactured elements that are “backdoor” systems that would allow data to be covertly intercepted.
“If this issue is not resolved, the UAE is willing to scrap the whole deal,” one anonymous UAE source told Defense News, who added that the security flaw had been discovered in September 2013 and that the UAE had asked France to change these components.
Losing the contract, signed in July 2013, would be a serious setback for France. The deal represents the biggest supply of French military hardware to the UAE since 2007, when France overtook its main rival the USA, who until then had been the UAE's biggest military supplier.
Neither Astrium (part of Airbus) nor Thales, the French companies supplying the satellites, were available to comment when contacted by FRANCE 24.
A sabotage attempt by a competitor?
The “revelations” by Defense News raise a number of questions. Certain experts see the work of competitor countries – including the USA, China and Russia – jealous of France’s lucrative deal.
According to Alexandre Vatravers, associate researcher at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the notion of finding American components in part of a sophisticated French-made product hardly raises any eyebrows.
“Globalisation of high technology means it is virtually impossible to produce something like this without a certain amount of US know-how,” he told FRANCE 24.
But does this necessarily mean that the NSA, in the headlines for its huge spying operations revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden last year, is using those components to keep tabs on the UAE?
“These are observation satellites,” said Alain Charret, a former senior officer of the French Air Force and a specialist in electronic warfare. “I really don’t see what interest the Americans would have in installing backdoor systems when they can get all this information from their own satellites.”
“The only advantage for the Americans would be to know what the UAE is actually interested in watching,” he said, adding that this type of information would be readily shared between the two allies anyway.
Finding backdoor technology two months after signing a contract that neither the UAE experts nor the French engineers had been aware of also seems unlikely, according to both experts.
“The most likely explanation is that a competitor has planted a seed of doubt in an attempt to sabotage the deal,” said Charret.
The Defense News article goes on to say that talks have resumed between Abu Dhabi and Russia and China.
“Buying satellites from these countries may turn out to be cheaper, but they would offer no additional security to the UAE,” said Vautravers, who believes, as does Charret, that the culprit is most likely to be found in the United States.
Which would be a strange double game. By creating doubts as to the security of their own country’s technology, they are undermining the deal between Paris and Abu Dhabi precisely because of the presence of American components.
“Yes, this is paradoxical, but stranger things have happened in this industry,” said Charret.