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When Britain and France decided three years ago to upgrade their defence and security links, they formed a long-term strategic partnership based on joint forces, procurement co-operation, sharing key assets, and mutual dependence. This was such a fundamental step, and so critical for each country, that a full-blown international treaty formalised the undertakings, which was signed in November 2010 at Lancaster House.

Expectations were high that the two countries would move swiftly and systematically to implement what they had agreed. Some looked forward to progressive integration of the two countries’ capabilities as a means of preserving effective military means which otherwise would drain away. But today the record of achievement is mixed.

At the operational level, British and French forces worked successfully alongside one another in Libya, and British forces provided some support to French forces in Mali. But other countries did so too, and those operations could be seen as one-offs rather than the result of systematic planning; they might have occurred without the treaty. At the level of armaments co-operation, we have yet to see any major commitments to joint procurement or support even though the High Level Working Group, the body charged under the treaty with delivering results in this area, has been working to this end since 2006. Seven years should be enough.

“Mutual confidence is growing as a result of experiences in Libya and Mali, but early British scepticism about French plans for Mali shows that a cultural and doctrinal gap remains”

On the eve of the next Franco-British summit, expected to take place at the end of January, it is worth asking whether something has gone wrong. Have the two countries changed their minds and stepped back, or were initial expectations just too high? To answer these questions, we should look in more detail at the treaties, consider the criteria for success, and try to understand the reasons for under-achievement where it has occurred.

Two treaties were signed at Lancaster House, one to last 50 years dealing with specific nuclear co-operation, the other addressing general defence and security, with no end-date. The nuclear treaty provides for the construction and shared use of two radiographic and hydrodynamics facilities, one at Valduc in France, the other at Aldermaston in Britain, to support safe maintenance of the two countries’ nuclear weapons. Construction work has begun and, as far as is known, the work is on schedule. A planned independent UK facility at Aldermaston, which some scientists hoped would be retained as a partial back-up, has been cancelled. For better or worse now, both sides are committed to the path of mutual dependency in this critical field.

We are nowhere near similar irreversibility as regards the more general treaty on defence and security, which addresses operations and capabilities. The operational aspect focuses on the formation, preparation and training of a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF), consisting of brigade-sized air, land and sea elements, to be fully ready by 2016. Responsibility for implementation lies with the military staffs and a number of joint exercises have already been undertaken, in addition to the real-world joint air operation in Libya in 2011. Exchange officer numbers have been increased, although the number involved is still a small fraction of those in equivalent programmes with the United States. Mutual confidence is growing as a result of experiences in Libya and Mali, but early British scepticism about French plans for Mali shows that a cultural and doctrinal gap remains. Senior officers on both sides regard the CJEF as a welcome additional option rather than their most likely future deployment route.

“Linguistic and cultural differences will join with traditional mistrust and rivalry to prevent anything more than a halting, step-by-step collaboration based on separately calculated national interest at each stage”

So far as capabilities are concerned, the treaty envisaged close consultation over acquisition programmes and plans, active pursuit of joint procurement and joint support, and mutual dependence in industrial and technological assets. Progress has been very slow, in part, paradoxically, as a result of budgetary constraints on both sides.

Judged against the objectives of the treaties and the expectations that accompanied them, there is some way to go before implementation can be considered a success:

  • Some money has undoubtedly been saved through sharing nuclear facilities, and the potential for more savings remains.
  • Joint procurement has not yet become a reality, with a strong tendency on both sides to judge each co-operative opportunity separately on its merits rather than within the overall context of the treaty. Opportunities for major joint projects are being actively considered (examples include: Future Combat Air System (FCAS), Army Armoured Vehicles, Future Air to Surface Guided Weapons, Maritime Mine Countermeasures, Tactical and Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Air Vehicles, Future Flying Training), but none has yet been agreed.
  • Operational capability is being enhanced, through preparations for the CJEF, which will make it easier and more effective for British and French forces to work together in future crises, but the partnership is not yet a natural one and co-operation is not yet instinctive.
  • Apart from the Complex Weapons domain, where co-operation in missiles was active even before the setting up of the High Level Working Group, there’s no evidence of systematic action to preserve or strengthen industrial or technological capabilities, despite the target of spending €100m per year on common research and technology projects, which has not yet been reached. Nor have we yet seen any decisive co-operative action to ensure future access to critical defence technologies, despite evidence of some of these, such as airborne sensors, being at risk in both countries. The High Level Working Group, which should have this as one of its priorities, now rarely if ever meets with its industry members present, which was the original intention.

The responsibility for ensuring that the treaties deliver what was expected of them lies with the Senior Level Group, established under the defence and security treaty and chaired by the top security advisers of the Prime Minister and the President, but this group has only met three times to prepare the annual summit meetings, suggesting that government leaders’ attention has shifted elsewhere. There certainly appears to be less shared enthusiasm between David Cameron and François Hollande than there was between Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.

“We need to cross the tipping point and make Franco-British co-operation the essential framework condition for all British and French defence and security decisions”

Without sustained and strong pressure from the top, Franco-British co-operation will always drift backwards. Linguistic and cultural differences will join with traditional mistrust and rivalry to prevent anything more than a halting, step-by-step collaboration based on separately calculated national interest at each stage.

We need to cross the tipping point and make Franco-British co-operation the essential framework condition for all British and French defence and security decisions. Only in that way will we secure the strategic benefits that the Lancaster House treaties promised – to ensure that we maximise our defence capabilities, maintain our industries and technologies, and preserve our ability to support military operations where needed, all within constrained budgets.

The upcoming Franco-British summit must reconfirm the two leaders’ determination to make co-operation between their countries a main foundation of their defence and security strategies and back this up with solid commitments. They should decide:

  • To intensify operational co-operation, including through weekly briefing sessions where information is shared on current operations and potential new deployments, with a view to developing a shared operational outlook, sharing lessons learned, and preparing joint or supporting actions;
  • To pursue all major new equipment programmes in co-operation with each other unless either timescales or major cost disadvantages prevent it, and make bilateral interoperability a basic requirement for all equipment likely to be deployed as part or in support of the CJEF; and
  • To manage their industrial policies and research and technology investment programmes with a view to sharing the cost of maintaining independent access to critical technologies required for our forces, and supporting strong defence industries in both countries.

In support of these strengthened political commitments, the Senior Level Group should make some structural changes in the way the treaty is implemented, including:

  • Increasing the number of exchange officers deployed in British and French units and ensuring they are able to operate with full access to information;
  • Ring-fencing the funds currently targeted for joint R&T investment to ensure they are spent in common;
  • Establishing a joint office to support Franco-British co-operation and ensure strategic benefits are properly taken into account in key capabilities decisions such as FCAS; and
  • Re-engaging with Industry in the High Level Working Group.

Implementing the Lancaster House treaty is the single most important long-term security task facing Britain and France because without it we will not be able to maintain broad scope military capabilities to defend our common security interests around the world. As things stand, Franco-British co-operation is not a dead letter but it is at risk of becoming so. It needs a re-launch based on strengthened political commitment and much more determined implementation at the working level.

 

Photo credit: Defence Images