US Backdoors in French Satellites Threatens Billion Dollar Deal With the UAE

US Backdoors in French Satellites Threatens Billion Dollar Deal With the UAE`
US Backdoors in French Satellites Threatens Billion Dollar Deal With the UAE`

Back in July 2013 the French defense industry scored a notable success over its US rivals when it secured a €700 million deal to supply two spy satellites to the UAE. Now that deal appears to be in jeopardy, because of the US. Defense News reported yesterday, "A United Arab Emirates (UAE) deal to purchase two intelligence satellites from France worth almost 3.4 billion dirhams (US $930 million) is in jeopardy after the discovery of what was described as “security compromising components.”

Exactly what has been found has not been explained, but given all of the recent news about NSA hardware and software backdoors, the clear implication is that suspected or potential backdoors have been discovered in US components bought in by the French contractors. Defense News quoted a source saying, "The discovery was reported to the deputy supreme commander’s office [Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed] in September. We have requested the French to change these components and also consulted with the Russian and Chinese firms.”

Only very limited information has been released by the UAE. Although discovered in September, it has taken almost four months for any public comment. Discussions with the Russians and Chinese have taken place, but to what effect is not disclosed. There is the threat to cancel the agreement (“If this issue is not resolved, the UAE is willing to scrap the whole deal,” said the Defense News source), but it hasn't happened yet. Rather, the French companies involved, Airbus Defence and Space and payload-maker Thales Alenia Space, have merely been asked to replace two suspect US components. According to the report, "Neither company was available for comment."

On the one hand, this has led to a suggestion that it might really be a UAE negotiating ploy aimed at getting a better subsequent deal from Paris for the Dassault Aviation Rafale fighter plane. If this is the case, now would be a good time to do so following the recent Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance backdoors: an accusation of backdoors inserted into US components supplied by France to the UAE would surprise no-one.

On the other hand, at least one French defense specialist was surprised that the satellites would include US components at all. "France operates the Pleiades spy satellite in what is viewed as a critical piece of the nation’s sovereignty," reported Defense News. "Given that core competence, it seemed strange that France would use US technology, although there is an agreement between Paris and Washington over transfer of capabilities, analysts said."

What’s Hot on Infosecurity Magazine?