Britain, France embark on new defence partnership

LONDON (AFP) – Britain and France sign treaties Tuesday for unprecedented defence cooperation, including the creation of a joint military force, the sharing of aircraft carriers and closer nuclear research.

Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will sign two pacts in London setting out the new agreement, which will allow both nations to remain global players despite cutting defence budgets.

The Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier is seen in waters off the French Mediterranean coast in June 2010. AFP file

"I do seriously believe that this link-up with the French is in the long-term interests of both our countries," Cameron told British lawmakers Monday.

Both London and Paris have defended the plans, insisting their militaries will not lose the ability to act independently.

Cameron insisted: "Partnership -- yes. But giving away sovereignty -- no."

Referring to plans for nuclear cooperation, the French president's office said any such measures would be taken "in total respect of the independence of deterrent powers of the two countries."

The first treaty will cover a wide agreement on defence, from the creation of a new combined joint expeditionary force to sharing the use of aircraft carriers, the maintenance of transport planes and some joint procurement.

The second treaty will cover plans to share technology in the testing of nuclear weapons, although officials stressed this would not see the two countries share nuclear secrets, nor the codes to their nuclear submarines.

A deal between the historic rivals has been in the offing for some time, but officials on both sides of the English Channel say the agreement has been spurred on by the need to tighten belts after the financial crisis.

Both countries have been forced to cut their military budgets to deal with huge deficits but they are also reluctant to give up their global clout.

The new joint expeditionary force, comprising about 3,500 to 5,000 troops, will begin training next year and would be deployed on an ad hoc basis under a single commander, likely speaking English.

It will be "a combined joint expeditionary force -- not a standing military force but a pool of armed forces from both countries who train together," said a British official, who asked to remain anonymous.

The two countries will also share the use of their aircraft carriers from 2020. With each country operating only one carrier, they will be able to use the other nation's vessel when theirs is under maintenance.

Cooperation is also planned on the new A400m transport aircraft they are both buying, with plans under way to share maintenance and training.

Under the nuclear deal, Paris and London will test the safety of their nuclear arsenals in a joint facility in France, according to the French presidency.

A nuclear simulation centre will be built at Valduc, eastern France, which will work with a French-British research site in Aldermaston, southern England. Several dozen French and British experts will work on the project.

It will enable French and British scientists to model the performances of nuclear materials to ensure the "viability, safety and security in the long term of our nuclear arsenals," the French presidency said.

A series of joint military projects aimed at bringing the defence industries of both countries closer will also be unveiled, with work on submarine, missile and drone technology, it said.

The move is intended to "share the costs of development" and build "European champions" capable of competing with the United States, said the presidency.

Sceptics recall that 12 years ago, British premier Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac hailed their intention to cooperate on defence, but little came of it.

The pair also fell out spectacularly over the war in Iraq.

However, Sarkozy said this year he was ready to remove "taboos" and consider "concrete projects" to work with Britain, while Cameron's coalition government also put bilateral operations at the heart of a recent defence review.

French officials conceded that Britain had in the past been reluctant to get involved in European defence projects but now recognised it was in their own interest.

"The English have a horror of anything with a hint of European defence but... they are open to anything that will maintain the survival of their defence industry," a source in the French government told AFP.

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