PARIS --- For the third time in as many decades, France has decided to turn its back on a reluctant Germany to seek closer defense ties with Great Britain, newly receptive to European cooperation now that its public purse can no longer afford to fund its foreign policy and military ambitions.
Yet, there is little to suggest that the new Entente Cordiale will fare any better than its predecessors, all of which unraveled as it became apparent that the two countries’ foreign and defense policies were impossible to reconcile.
These differences are fundamental, and it is difficult to understand how the two leaders, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, think it is now possible to paper them over simply because the money has run out.
In fact, referring to the decision to cooperate on nuclear weapons research, Mr Sarkozy said the agreement demonstrates a “level of confidence between our two nations unequalled in history.” He did not, however, explain where this level of confidence had sprung from, nor why it had so opportunely materialised at this very point in time.
As Conservative former shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin told The Guardian, "We cannot have a strategic fusion with a country that has historically, and still has, diametrically different strategic objectives on the world stage."
Since the Second World War, British defense policy has been closely aligned first on that of the United States, and second on NATO’s, with the terms “European defense” and “European Army” being considered in Britain as scarecrows to alarm Eurosceptics rather than as valid concepts meriting serious consideration.
In terms of industrial policy, the United States dominates the UK defense market, both as a supplier and a customer, with BAE Systems now unsure as to its nationality since it is based in the UK but generates much, if not most, of its revenue in the US.
Where France has made a point of nurturing national champions in the aerospace and defense industries, Britain has taken a laissez-faire attitude, with the result that much of what remains of its industry is now foreign-owned. The Nov. 2 agreement requires the UK to focus on preserving and developing the European defense industrial base and to compete with US industry, two concepts that resolutely fly in the face of British defense and industrial policies of the past 30 years.
Previous attempts at industrial cooperation, although technically successful, also left a bitter taste in British mouths. British executives still remember that, after jointly launching the Puma and Gazelle helicopters, France launched a national design, the Dauphin, to compete with the third bilateral program, Lynx, on which Britain was the lead nation with export rights.
Similarly, France’s decision to launch the Mirage 5 export fighter just as Britain began exporting the Jaguar fighter-bomber both countries had jointly developed is still alive in British memories.
Apart from France’s decision to re-join NATO’s military command, which has brought less real change than its participation to ISAF operations in Afghanistan, nothing suggests that Britain and France have suddenly become close enough friends to undertake sustainable cooperation on operational, industrial and nuclear matters.
Both countries’ public opinions are not aligned in favor of sharing military resources, and “Britons are far less keen on the idea …than any of the other leading powers in Europe, believing it is important for the UK to retain a strong national grip on its defence assets,” according to a Nov. 1 opinion poll for the Financial Times.
But, demonstrating a true politician’s desire to have his cake and eat it, too, Cameron said that “the two biggest defence budgets in Europe are recognising that if we come together and work together we increase not just our joint capacity, but crucially we increase our own individual sovereign capacity so that we can do more things alone as well as together."
Since there is no obvious political, historical or public opinion justification for this new Anglo-French initiative, a closer look at the main points of the joint Nov. 2 statement will assist in weighing its real significance.
”Collaboration in the technology associated with nuclear stockpile stewardship in support of our respective independent nuclear deterrent capabilities…through unprecedented co-operation at a new joint facility at Valduc in France that will model performance of our nuclear warheads and materials to ensure long-term viability, security and safety” is indeed a revolutionary initiative.
Nuclear matters are the very foundation of each country’s sovereignty, and cooperating on such crucial matters is obviously of huge political significance. But no government can risk creating any doubt as to the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent, so it remains to be seen how implementation of this novel agreement will safeguard the nuclear credibility on both countries.
British anti-nuclear groups CND and Greenpeace also questioned whether cooperation on nuclear weapons is permissible under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with special reference to its Article I.
The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) initiative is essentially hollow, especially as it is envisaged as a “non-standing,” ad-hoc unit, and its main thrust is that British and French troops will train to fight alongside each other.
This is hardly new: as noted even in MoD’s own communiqué, “the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards …. has commanded French troops in the past [when] as Commander ISAF in 2006, he was in command of the French detachment in Afghanistan,” well before today’s treaty and well before Sarkozy took France back into NATO’s integrated military command.
It is also worth noting that bilateral or multilateral initiatives of this sort have sprung up like mushrooms for two decades but have led nowhere, like the similarly-named Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF) envisioned by NATO in the 1990s.
Maritime task group co-operation around the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. If the goal really is to “deploy a UK-French integrated carrier strike group incorporating assets owned by both countries,” one wonders why it is necessary to wait until 2020.
In fact, the real innovation is that the timing of the refits of each country’s single carrier would be coordinated, ensuring one was operational at all times. But, eroding the concept’s significance, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that “we will only jointly commit the taskforce if we jointly agree the mission” meaning that, in effect, neither nation would ever be assured of having access to the “joint carrier strike group,” which will become an asset of dubious strategic value to both.
Submarine technologies and systems The two countries say they plan to “develop jointly some of the equipment and technologies for the next generation of nuclear submarines. To that end, we will launch a joint study and agree arrangements in 2011.”
While co-operation may well “help to sustain and rationalise our combined industrial base” and “generate savings through the sharing of development activities, procurement methods and technical expertise,” this will in practice prove difficult, if not impossible, because of the very different timing of each country’s submarine programs.
While Britain is now launching its new class of Astute-class nuclear attack submarines, France has only begun to study its equivalent Barracuda-class SSNs, and while Britain plans to replace its nuclear missile submarines with a new class of missile boats being developed with US help after 2020, France has just finished putting in service its own new class of SSBNs.
The scope for industrial cooperation is thus very limited, especially as any French input into Britain’s new SSBNs will run foul of US secrecy rules because the new US and UK SSBNs will share a common missile compartment.
Britain and France also “reached an agreement on a 10 year strategic plan for the British and French Complex Weapons sector, where we will work towards a single European prime contractor and the achievement of efficiency savings of up to 30%.”
This is not very new. Two French-based companies, MBDA and Thales, were selected in July 2008 by Britain’s Ministry of Defence to lead a “new approach to purchasing the UK armed forces’ complex weapons,” and the new agreement means the French MoD will now join the initiative.
Developing joint military doctrine and training programmes is supposed to be have been happening under NATO auspices for 60 years, so it hardly counts as a true bilateral innovation. While joint training would undoubtedly benefit both armies, it is hardly necessary to sign a new treaty by two NATO allies to make it possible.
Extending bilateral co-operation on the acquisition of equipment and technologies As mentioned above, previous attempts at cooperation in this field have yielded few results. It might prove easier now that the UK has much less of an industry to protect, but this would mean opening the British defense market to French industry with no reciprocity as Britain now has few unique capabilities to offer.
Aligning wherever possible logistics arrangements As both countries will field the Airbus A400M military transport, it makes obvious sense to jointly handling spares and support for the aircraft. Yet, the proposed cooperation stops well short of more radical steps France has taken in the field of military air transport, going for example as far as pooling its air transport fleet with those of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands under the new European Air Transport Command, activated on Sept. 1, 2010 in Eindhoven.
Satellite communications may well offer an opportunity for cooperation, and it is certainly worthwhile to “complete a joint concept study in 2011 for the next satellites to enter into service between 2018 and 2022.” But France has already teamed with Italy and Spain on military satcoms, so unless it intends to switch alliances the solution will require integrating Britain into the existing framework, which would probably not go down very well with British Eurosceptics and requires Italian and Spanish approval.
For air-to-air refuelling and passenger air transport, the two countries “are currently investigating the potential to use spare capacity that may be available in the UK’s Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme to meet the needs of France for air to air refuelling and military air transport, provided it is financially acceptable to both nations.”
This ought to be a boon for the UK, as finding a new, stable customer for the new fleet of transport/tanker aircraft would rescue the financially troubled FSTA program, but it is far from certain that France, whose tanker aircraft support its nuclear strike missions, would accept buying tanker capacity from a foreign, privately-owned company, albeit it a British one, unless it was for occasional, high-intensity operations during which the RAF would presumably also need its full refueling capacity.
Consequently, only two areas identified in the joint communiqué offer realistic prospects for cooperation.
The agreement to “work together on the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Air Surveillance systems” will be made easier by the fact that Thales, a French company, is currently a major supplier of UAVs to the UK MoD through the Watchkeeper program. The idea is that “co-operation will enable the potential sharing of development, support and training costs, and ensure that our forces can work together,” and the two governments “will launch a jointly funded, competitive assessment phase in 2011, with a view to new equipment delivery between 2015and 2020.”
In the medium-term, maritime mine countermeasures is the one other sector that offers scope for cooperation, especially as both countries’ minehunter fleets are approaching their retirement dates. The two countries “will align plans for elements of mine countermeasures equipment and systems ...[and]…will therefore establish a common project team in 2011 to agree the specifications for a prototype mine countermeasures system.”
What real significance?
In the final analysis, the significance of the Anglo-French treaty and arrangements announced in London Nov. 2 is mostly that they will reassure domestic public opinions in both countries by giving the impression that, despite much belt-tightening, national defense is not being ignored by their respective governments.
A second, unspoken argument is that allowing both countries to save money is sufficient justification, but it is far from clear how much money it will be possible to save through the initiatives listed above. In fact, they seem more likely to avoid extra expenditure than to generate real savings.
To public opinions that know little and care less about defense, it will sound reassuring to hear that France’s one breakdown-prone nuclear carrier, and Britain’s future aircraft-less aircraft carriers, will combine to give birth to the impressively-named “UK-French integrated carrier strike group,” even if they will have to wait a decade to see this come true.
There is a small possibility that the present lack of money will force both countries’ governments and their militaries to cooperate effectively. But, lacking a real motivational policy shift, and pro-active, continuous leadership from the top, this remains as unlikely this time around as in previous ones.
A final thought: if this sudden “rapprochement” is justified by financial self-interest alone, how durable will it prove once both countries’ finances eventually recover?