29 August 2010
Professor Julian Lindley-French
(Former Chatham House Expert)


The UK Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has called for closer Anglo-French defence cooperation. Clearly, budgetary pressures faced by the armed forces of both countries are behind this latest attempt. But why should this effort prove any more successful than the many previous attempts? Put simply, this is a strategic decision for Britain and France, both of which are in relative and parallel decline as power shifts east, and America and Germany are looking east too.

Therefore, new realities must be gripped and mutual mistrust and mutual miscomprehension overcome to build a new relationship. In 1998, at St Malo, the French and British tried to forge a partnership but whilst the idea was ready the politics was not. Put simply, insufficient external pressure existed on either Britain or France to force the necessary changes in policy to make Anglo-French leadership of EU security and defence a reality.

A New Anglo-French Agenda

Several steps could be taken to foster a culture of cooperation that would not exclude or damage enduring strategic partnerships with Washington and Berlin that both London and Paris will insist upon. For example, it is extremely costly for both countries to keep ballistic missile submarines patrolling the same bit of sea at the same time for the same extremely unlikely reasons. Moreover, both Britain and France are finding the cost of their respective future equipment programmes prohibitive. Anglo-French defence cooperation could render equipment such as aircraft carriers far more affordable.

More actionable intelligence could be shared given that both countries are locked in the same counter-terror struggle. At the very least Britain and France could do far more to generate a shared intelligence assessment. London and Paris could also do more to develop effective civil-military co-operation vital to both stabilization and reconstruction operations and what passes for a European strategic culture.

However, critical to the relationship will be military procurement co-operation. Within days of coming to power, the new British coalition government ordered a review of the €12bn Future Strategic Tanker (FSTA) to see if co-operation with the French made operational and financial sense. Other options being considered include the French and Royal Air Forces sharing Airbus A-330 tankers and Boeing C-17 airlifters, and creating a single operational pool from the future A-400M transporters. Such initiatives are fine in principle but the devil will be in the operational detail, particularly at times of stress.

Detente or Decline

The time is ripe for a new pragmatic Anglo-French defence agenda to rekindle one of the world's oldest and most profound strategic relationships. There can be no illusions. Indeed, whilst the challenges faced by both countries demand that Anglo-French defence cooperation be both strategic and pragmatic, the relationship will probably never be truly warm. Moreover, much of this cooperation will necessarily concern preparing for operations after Afghanistan. Indeed, the British have been disappointed at the refusal of France to send significant forces to aid them in the south. Trust is a precious commodity on both sides of the Channel and too often marked by its absence at critical moments.

However, such cooperation is as vital in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth century. The alternative is clear. Britain and France are in danger of becoming small countries far away from the centre of power about which they know little locked as they are in a parochial struggle for the leadership of the irrelevant.