The armed forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are expected to sign a contract valued at €800 million ($1 billion) with EADS Astrium and Thales Alenia Space to build and launch two high-resolution military optical imaging satellites, the first of which will launch in 2019, according to industry sources.

The news came as French Defense Minister Jean Yves Le Drian attended a signing ceremony with representatives of EADS Astrium and Thales during a July 22 visit to Abu Dhabi, marking his second trip to UAE this month.

Industry sources said the spacecraft are to be built entirely in France, with Astrium leading the 50/50 development, including assembly and test. Based on Astrium’s Astrobus platform, the satellites are expected to provide the same agility that France’s new Astrium/Thales-built Pleiades Earth observation spacecraft currently deliver to the French armed forces.

As was the case with Pleiades, Thales will be responsible for developing the satellite optical imager, which is expected to offer a capability similar to Pleaides, delivering raw data with 70-cm panchromatic resolution at nadir that can be resampled to produce pictures of 50-cm-wide objects.

Astrium and Thales need four or five years to build and test the spacecraft and their associated ground segment, which will be used to monitor, receive and process images, and to train some 20 UAE engineers to control them.

Designed for launch atop a European Vega light-launcher from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, the satellites could also be launched on the European variant of Russia’s Soyuz or atop an Ariane 5, an industry source said.

The UAE for years has been shopping for a high-resolution imaging satellite among U.S. and European suppliers. In addition to Astrium and Thales, bidders included Lockheed Martin and DigitalGlobe, which could have potentially furnished the spare, ultra-high-resolution GeoEye-2 satellite it acquired in the January takeover of chief U.S. rival GeoEye.

In February this year DigitalGlobe spokesman Robert Keosheyan told Aviation Week the company had received an “unsolicited inbound expression of interest” in GeoEye-2 from the UAE but the Longmont, Colo.-based company had not engaged in discussions at that point.