What Does The UK-France Defence Pact Really Mean?

London, UK - 2nd November 2010, 22:10 GMT

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[Please note that the views presented by individual contributors are not necessarily representative of the views of ATCA, which is neutral. ATCA conducts collective Socratic dialogue on global opportunities and threats.]

The leaders of Britain and France have signed a groundbreaking treaty on defence co-operation, without precedence, that seeks to combine many elements of their militaries. Five strategic points in regard to the landmark 50-year treaty on defence and security are the following:

1. This partnership underlines that Britain and France are the two biggest military powers in Europe;
2. The two military powers have accepted that alone they no longer have the means to project their power globally;
3. They need to co-operate not at a pan-European level but worldwide, as two nation states with long military traditions;
4. Experts say they are concerned about limiting both countries' ability to act independently; and
5. This is an entente cordiale that will be tested, as always, by events.

President Sarkozy and prime minister Cameron sign the treaties

The measures were formally agreed at a Lancaster House summit in London involving Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy, who jointly signed two treaties on defence and security. The planned co-operation is unequalled not only in the history of these two nations, but for that matter, any two powerful nations. The scale of what is being attempted -- from sharing aircraft carriers to the joint development of armed unmanned aircraft and from having a joint reaction force to research and testing of nuclear warheads and components -- is different from previous collaborations between any two major global powers. In this case, both countries are members of the UN Security Council. Britain and France are natural partners as the third and fourth largest forces in the world, Mr Cameron has said, calling France a logical, sensible and practical partner.

Allies in Austerity

The deal has in part been forced on the two countries as they struggle with tightening defence budgets, but it also reflects a level of mutual trust not seen for decades. Officials in the UK and France claim the treaties will both improve capability and save money. The treaties come two weeks after the British government announced deep cuts to its defence budget, with the armed forces losing 10 percent of uniformed personnel in the next five years. The need to trim defence budgets has brought both nations to this point although the expected savings have yet to be set out. Both leaders, aware of potential domestic critics, claimed this was not about weakening their countries as powers. Closer co-operation between London and Paris would “strengthen our defence at a time when national finances are severely challenged,” Mr Cameron said. “This is based on pragmatism, not sentiment.” The prime minister said the agreement would reduce development costs, eliminate duplication and align research programmes.

Iraq, NATO and Unilateral Action

President Sarkozy has insisted that "our values are the same, our interests are shared!" He did not fully answer the question of what would happen if the two nations disagreed about the use of armed force which has occurred as recently as Iraq (2003). France returned recently to NATO’s integrated military command 50 years after General de Gaulle pulled his country out. Mr Cameron stressed that Britain would retain the ability to fight alone. He pointed out that British troops had in practice only operated independently twice in the past 30 years -- in Sierra Leone (2000) and in the Falklands (1982). The bulk of UK military activity has been undertaken in co-operation with allies, and he said anything that strengthened overall UK military capacity would be welcomed by UK's international partners, including the US.

Defence Scale

UK and France together are responsible for 50 percent of all defence spending and 65 percent of all defence research and development spending within the European Union. Britain is open to the defence treaty because it is being made directly with France, not under broad orders from the European Union. The treaties require further ratification before becoming law.

Sovereignty and Solidarity

Prime minister Cameron said Britain and France would always remain sovereign nations while Mr Sarkozy said that sovereignty was just as touchy an issue in France as it was in Britain. Mr Sarkozy said, "We cannot solve problems of the 21st century with the ideas of the 20th century... it is fashionable to say that Europe lacks strategic vision, but Britain and France have pooled their sovereignty." Mr Cameron insisted the defence agreements were a “source of strength and solidarity” rather than a surrender of national sovereignty.

First Treaty

The first defence treaty will include:

a. Aircraft Carriers: Changing the design of some aircraft carriers to allow both British and French planes to land. Britain will convert a future aircraft carrier to enable French aircraft to use it. By the early 2020s the two nations aim to combine their carrier operations; and

b. Operations and Training: A combined joint expeditionary force suitable for a range of scenarios, including high-intensity operations. This will involve army, air force and navy services available for bilateral, NATO, European Union, United Nations and other operations. Combined air and land exercises will start in 2011.

The treaty also calls for bilateral co-operation in:

. Equipment;
. Unmanned air systems: Joint development of a new Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) armed unmanned aerial vehicle, with delivery between 2015 and 2020 and longer-term research into unmanned fighter aircraft;
. Defence industry matters;
. Cyber-security; and
. Research and development.

Many of the steps in the defence treaty are designed to save money, such as:

. Co-operation on future military satellite communications; and
. A plan to use spare capacity on each country's aircraft for air-to-air refuelling or military transport.

Second Treaty

A second defence treaty would see the two countries engage in:

. Nuclear Co-operation: The sharing of technology used to maintain nuclear warheads; including
. New Testing Facilities: The two nations will work together at a new nuclear weapon simulation centre in Valduc in France to model warhead performance, supported by a joint technology centre at Aldermaston in Britain.


The UK-France defence deal is a triumph of pragmatism over ideology. This treaty preserves the capability of these two nations to project military power on a global basis, at a time of necessary spending cuts. The drive towards austerity has clearly delivered more than was ever imagined over the past several decades of strategic defence dialogue. The key question that the British and French establishment are likely to ask in the years to come is the following: If we can co-operate this much, why not go further? Demographic trends -- including life extension and low birth rates -- mean that social spending will take up a growing part of already untenable budgets as both societies age, so the two nations are cutting defence budgets early and they may need to go further.

The other important message from the French perspective is that Germany is not quite running Europe and that two world wars fought together by Britain and France did cement relationships. Conversely, Russia cannot be a military partner to Germany for historical, geopolitical and military reasons. In essence, the latest move between the two major European powers is rebalancing Europe towards more geopolitical involvement and greater closeness to the United States.


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