Britain, France embark on new defence partnership

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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.

British 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.

"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.

He added: "We have similar sized armed forces, similarly structured armed forces, we both have a nuclear deterrent, we both want to enhance our sovereign capability while also being more efficient at the same time."

But Cameron insisted Britain would maintain the ability to operate independently, saying: "Partnership -- yes. But giving away sovereignty -- no."

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 -- Britain has cut total government spending by an average of 19 percent -- 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 underway to share maintenance and training.

Under the nuclear deal, British teams will work in French laboratories and vice versa from 2015, sharing expensive equipment used to test the safety of nuclear warheads. All their findings will remain secret.

British officials have highlighted "value for money" as a key part of the new cooperation agreement, noting that the nuclear deal alone will cost "considerable sums" over the next four years.

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.

Officials in both countries credit Cameron's committment to the realisation of the defence deal -- although this has already caused him some trouble within the most Eurosceptic members of his Conservative party.

© 2010 AFP

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