British and French officials engaged in high-level defense talks have denied reports the two countries are considering sharing aircraft carriers, but are paving the way for unprecedented military cooperation, according to sources on both sides of the English Channel.
Speaking on the eve of talks in Paris between the British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and his French counterpart, Herve Morin, officials said plans were being drawn up in an attempt to save money, but maintain capabilities.
“We’re in a phase where we must absolutely synchronize our budget cuts so that, in the end, there’s no loss in our military capacities,” a senior French diplomat said.
However, British defense officials, irritated by reports of plans to “combine forces” and “share” ships, were keen to play down the significance of yesterday’s meeting. Morin is expected to be a victim of an imminent French government reshuffle.
“We will be looking at areas of closer cooperation between the two countries. But there are no plans to share carriers,” British officials said.
Officials are instead pointing to the significance of the Franco-British summit between British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, due to be held in Britain on Nov. 5. In a keynote address to ambassadors last month, Sarkozy said France was prepared to undertake “concrete” defense projects with Britain.
“We will be discussing this with them without taboos in November,” Sarkozy said.
The results of the British government’s strategic defense and security review are expected to be announced before the November summit, making it easier for Cameron and Sarkozy to announce specific plans for cooperation.
Recent reports that the two countries were planning to share ships, notably aircraft carriers, have provoked a storm of protest.
Lord Boyce, the former first sea lord, said: “You cannot co-own an asset. It is totally impracticable and simply won’t work.”
French military officials have also expressed concerns about the practical problems involved, including different warship design. The countries also have different interests or have taken opposing positions on key international issues, including the Falklands Islands, former French colonies in Africa and the invasion of Iraq.
However, there are many potential areas of defense cooperation, which British and French officials have been working on intensely throughout the summer.
Britain is building two carriers at a cost of £5.2 billion (US$8 billion) that are to enter service in 2016 and 2018. They are unlikely to fall victim to the defense review, officials say, if only because £2 billion has already been spent on them and under the contracts with shipyards and the manufacturers BAE Systems, Babcock International and the French company Thales, scrapping them would save less than £1 billion.
France, which has one aircraft carrier, has delayed until next year a decision on whether to build a second one.
Instead of sharing carriers, Britain and France could ensure more effective cooperation on missions about which the two governments agree, officials say. These could include humanitarian operations such as those off Lebanon four years ago and in the Persian Gulf.