Franco-British defence cooperation - a historic crossroads?
By Nick Witney
The Brown-Sarkozy summit in late March will offer a great opportunity to boost defence cooperation between the UK and France. A substantial agenda, set out in a secret report prepared over the past two years, is waiting to be taken forward. But real progress will require a determined exercise of will by the two leaders.
Some doubt that Britain will be ready for any new defence initiative with France whilst ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is still under debate in the UK Parliament. But French President Nicolas Sarkozy's overtures to the US and to NATO - soon to be manifested with more French troops for Afghanistan - have made the politics easier.
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And both sides have the best of incentives to increase their cooperation - financial necessity. At the outset of their present defence review, the French admitted that their forward re-equipment plans were unaffordable by over 40%. The cash crunch in the UK Ministry of Defence is almost as severe. Pressure of operations is also taking its toll on men and machinery on both sides of the Channel, tightening the financial bind.
Sooner rather than later, both countries will be facing major cuts in their defence capabilities - unless they can find ways to help each other by pooling their efforts and resources.
Happily, a plan to do just that has now been identified, in some detail. Almost two years ago, the last Blair-Chirac summit set up a small, high-level working group to work on deepening bilateral co-operation.
The group, comprising the two relevant deputy defence ministers and two top industry executives, submitted their report last July. It remains under wraps. But it describes the current moment as ‘an historic cross-roads'; and it contains a long list of practical, concrete proposals for pooling resources and sharing the benefits.
These range from setting up a joint defence research fund (worth 100 million euro a year), to cooperation on different missiles. Various sub-systems (for combat vehicles, aero-engines, drones) and a dozen technology areas (from radar to energetics) are identified as ripe for collaboration and interdependency. Opportunities for shared in-service support of common equipments, and joint out-sourcing, are catalogued.
So - should we expect the Summit to announce a bold step forward in these areas,
acting as a spur to other Europeans and signalling to the next US President that Europe's two leading military powers are determined to stay up with the hunt? Maybe - but only if the two leaders make the effort needed to overcome the friction and inertia which characterise all defence bureaucracies.
Defence establishments ‘play safe' - it is their nature. ‘Playing safe' in the present context will mean a summit outcome long on declarations and promises of further study, and short on hard commitments, especially involving money.
Watch to see, for example, whether the research fund idea sees the light of day. The bureaucracies will be trying hard to bury it, and with it the inconvenient requirement to work together to find common ground. But, absent such outcomes, friction and inertia will again have won the day.
It is now, in the final weeks of summit preparation, that the two leaders must exert themselves to insist on outcomes which measure up to the opportunity and the need.
Nick Witney is former Chief Executive of the European Defence Agency and currently a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (www.ecfr.eu)