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France Will Supply Venezuela with Ship Weapons Systems

by Miguel González | El Pais.es

Madrid. 13 March 2006 | Even though pressure from the United States has been focused on Spain, almost 20% of the €1.25 billion of the cost of the eight patrol boats that the Spanish state-owned Navantia shipyard has sold to Venezuela will end up in French hands. For political reasons, the Spanish government has decided against having Navantia manufacture the weapons systems for the ships, which will be supplied by Thales, the French electronics and defense group, for 230 million or so. Spain's Defense Ministry believes US intelligence tried to veto the deal.

Spain's Defense Ministry is convinced that the espionage operation denounced by President Chávez concerning the vessels was true. Washington’s objective was to find components of US origin on the ships in order to veto the transaction. This veto of the transfer to Venezuela of equipment of US origin, included as part of the transport aircraft manufactured by CASA-EADS, which has held in suspense the sale to Caracas of 12 aircraft worth €500 million, has made it necessary to scrutinize with a magnifying glass every last nut and bolt used in the construction of the eight ships by Navantia.

Sources at the state-owned shipyard maintain that the patrol boats (two for blue water operations and two for green water) do not have even a single component whose sale to a third country requires a license from the US. As an example, a radio system used by the Venezuelan Navy having a US patent was substituted by another of European origin in order to avoid any problems.

This was communicated to Eduardo Aguirre US Ambassador in Madrid. The Embassy was also furnished with detailed information meant to convince it that the matter had nothing to do with attack vessels, but rather protection of natural resources and that, consequently, these ships could not be seen as a threat by neighboring countries.

During the negotiation process, and as US hostility toward the transaction became more patent, the project gradually became disarmed and civilized. Despite the fact that, by their dimensions, the blue water patrol vessels fit into the category of corvettes, the use of this name was avoided and its weapons were limited to an Italian-made OTO Melara cannon—40 or 76 millimeters caliber—and a 20 millimeter Swiss-made Oerlikon machine gun.

But the most significant concession was dropping the sale of the patrol boat weapons systems. Even though, according to information sources in the industry, Navantia had the wherewithal for it —during the 1980’s it manufactured the weapons systems for the Serviola patrol boats, preceding the vessels for Venezuela— but for political reasons it was decided not to get to the heart of the warship issue.

The contract, signed by the Spanish shipyards with the Venezuelan Navy, whose execution is about to begin, includes integrating the French weapons systems furnished by the Thales group.

It does not appear, however, that these gestures are appeasing US concerns. In early February, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez confirmed that the investigation in response to open espionage directed against various commands of the Venezuelan Navy was related to the Navantia patrol boats. The case provoked a diplomatic incident between the two countries, with the respective embassies each having their attaché expelled.

The Defense Ministry as well as the Spanish manufacturer, are convinced that the Venezuelan protests are well-founded and that, in fact, there was a case of espionage concerning the Navantia patrol boats. But the objective, in the opinion of the same sources, could not have been the discovery of unsuspected military capabilities on the vessels, whose characteristics are overwhelmingly known by the Pentagon, but rather locating some component or other which, albeit in indirect fashion, would be of US origin.

With this information, Washington could have extended to the patrol boats the veto already proposed on the sale of aircraft or, at least, imposed serious obstacles to the transaction.

Translated by W.K.



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