France and Britain forge new path with defense treaty

France and Britain inked a defense treaty Tuesday that will allow sharing of nuclear secrets and the creation of a rapid-reaction force. President Sarkozy called the accord 'unprecedented.'

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
British Prime Minister David Cameron (l.) speaks with an unidentified man as they leave Lancaster House after a meeting in London on Nov. 2. Britain and France signed two treaties on Tuesday for closer cooperation on nuclear safety and military cooperation, Cameron said during a visit by President Sarkozy.

The new spirit of European austerity reached the French and UK militaries as leaders of the two nations agreed today on joint commands and nuclear testing cooperation.

"Today, we open a new chapter in a long history of cooperation on defense and security between Britain and France," said British Prime Minister David Cameron as the ink dried on a treaty signed in London.

The Franco-British treaty is apt for “a world where resources are tight,” said British Defense chief Liam Fox.

The deal amounts to the first steps in a new Anglo-French military relationship that will mean sharing nuclear secrets and the creation of a rapid-reaction force, the 6,500-strong Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the deal “unprecedented … showing a level of trust and confidence between our two nations which is unequaled in history."

The treaty speaks more to a political and diplomatic entente, analysts say, than to any immediate military synchronization. It marks the end of the bitter disagreement over the Iraq war, which France refused to participate in. The signing ceremony today hearkened back to the 1904 Entente Cordiale, in which France and England put old animosities behind them.

The deal could more tightly bond the two largest military powers in Europe – even as the center of economic gravity and political power on the Continent shifts to Germany.

Pentagon officials told the Monitor the concept is viewed in Washington as “all positives,” without going further.

France, Britain account for about half of Europe's defense spending

The French and British account for nearly half of defense spending in Europe, and their troops cooperated in the Balkans in the 1990s. Members of the rapid-reaction force would train together, yet stay in bases in their respective states. The team would be commanded by either a British or French officer.

Eventual areas of cooperation will include submarines, satellites, drones, cyberspace, and carrier-deployed aircraft.

British tabloids took full advantage of historic cultural clashes with the French in headlines like the Daily Express: “British Army Under French Orders.”

Yet the treaty starts modestly, and both leaders stressed national sovereignty and practical cooperation.

The two navies have rarely cooperated, and a functioning carrier task force will not be ready until 2020. Currently, French and British jets cannot fully operate on each others' carriers because of technological and repair constraints. Battle readiness is an issue as well: The French carrier de Gaulle, which has a history of dry docking and repairs, had to return to base in Toulouse recently, days after being deployed to the Afghan theater.

Jean-Dominique Merchet, a defense specialist in Paris, says a special military relationship with Britain grew out of the widespread view that a common European defense has become “not serious” as an idea, especially as no one wants to pay for defense anymore. While France has rejoined NATO, the organization is considered “old-fashioned,” Mr. Merchet says.

But without a true joint aircraft carrier task force before 2020, the new treaty is "important for political reasons.”

Nuclear oversight remains sovereign

A separate treaty on nuclear cooperation will not involve joint oversight of nuclear use or deployment; this remains sovereign. But the two nations will build centers in each state that will share information on nuclear testing and warhead maintenance – avoiding duplication between the only two nuclear powers of Europe.

In France, the research site will be located in Valduc, southeast of Paris, where military nuclear research has been conducted for decades, and is expected to include a laser that simulates explosions. In Britain, the site is set for the town of Aldermaston, west of London.

The Daily Telegraph today cites British officials saying the joint nuclear agreement involves a greater level of French awareness of British nuclear technology.

Last month, the British government announced sweeping and controversial cuts as part of its austerity program that will make 8 percent cuts across its armed services. A carrier group was saved after it became clear the cost to scupper the program was more expensive than building it.

[Editor's note: The original photo caption incorrectly identified the man with British Prime Minister David Cameron. The man is unidentified.]

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