Faced with severe budget cuts at home, Britain and France agreed today to work more closely together in the realm of defense. At a bilateral summit in London, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he and President Nicolas Sarkozy had opened a “new chapter” in the relationship between the two countries.
As a result of necessary austerity measures, the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom have been preparing for spending cuts for several months. The British military will be hit particularly hard as the Conservative-Liberal government intends to balance the budget by 2015. James Pritchett summarized the consequences last month.
The headline grabbing details include a loss of 5,000 personnel for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The Army will lose even more, 7,000 to bring the numbers of soldiers from all arms and services to 95,000. Defense projects will be scrapped, along with a number of fleets of vehicles, including the iconic Harrier jump jet of Falklands War fame. Against much expectation, the two CVF aircraft carriers will be built but one may be sold.
The French meanwhile are postponing a number of programs, including an order for fourteen Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft and the Ceres satellite surveillance system, in an effort to cut €3.5 billion in defense spending over the next three years.
In anticipation of these measures, rumors of Britain and France teaming up on defense have circulated since this summer.
Despite substantial differences in force and strategy, the two countries — Europe’s only two nuclear powers — have proven able to work together on a number of armaments projects in the past. What is more, both like to maintain some leverage internationally disproportionate to their actual weight in terms of both military and economic strength. A twenty-first century entente cordiale then makes sense. As Cameron put it, “this is a treaty based on pragmatism, not just sentiment.”
The agreement signed by Cameron and Sarkozy on Tuesday includes the adaption of aircraft carriers to enable both countries to use them. Britain has three Invincible class carriers currently in service and is building the first of two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers which is scheduled to enter service in 2016. France has one carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.
Just two months ago, the British defense secretary characterized the sharing of carriers as “utterly unrealistic” but it seems his prime minister begged to differ. Indeed, according to the Summit Declaration, the two countries intend to be able to deploy an integrated carrier strike group by the early 2020s, “incorporating assets owned by both countries.”
Britain and France will also form something called a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force which, according to their Declaration, will involve all three armed services.
[T]here will be a land component comprised of formations at national brigade level, maritime and air components with their associated headquarters, and logistics and support functions. It will not involve standing forces but will be available at notice for bilateral, NATO, European Union, United Nations or other operations.
The two leaders further pledged to intensify cooperation to combat nuclear proliferation and threats to cyber security. They mentioned the war in Afghanistan in their declaration, expressing support for early attempts at negotiation with those insurgents willing to “renounce terror, cut all ties with Al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitutional framework.”