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In June 2010, France and Britain commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the British Dunkirk evacuation and French General De Gaulle's 18 June call to arms across BBC airwaves in 1940. The leaders of both countries have indicated that this relationship could move beyond historical bonds of friendship to a more strategic and practical defence partnership.
In a visit on 18 June commemorating De Gaulle's broadcast urging French compatriots to keep-up the fight against Nazi Germany, President Nicholas Sarkozy joined Prime Minister David Cameron to underline both the historical and contemporary defence ties between France and Britain. From the beaches of Dunkirk to the plains of Afghanistan, the step was aptly made, but talk of shared responsibilities, with, as yet, no practical underpinnings behind it, cannot long substitute for real engagement towards a modern day defence entente.
The Defence Secretary Liam Fox, whilst speaking at RUSI's Future Defence Review conference on 14 June 2010, did just that by pointing to a Defence Diplomacy programme funded separately within the next UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), to be published by the government in November, which would reflect consultations with key UK allies and partners. Sustaining an already deepened dialogue between the British and French Ministries of Defence ahead of the SDSR, such consultations must be encouraged to focus on two major areas - defence industrial and military relations, as well as joint approaches to strategy and procurement - with a view to highlighting the extent to which there may be growing agreement amongst government and industry representatives on either side of the Channel.
Progress in terms of a defence bi-lateral, technically enhanced by the St Malo Agreements of 1998, has been too slow and a qualitative step-change in the relationship is now required. Indeed, since the Franco-British deployments to the Balkans during the 1990s, relations in the field between the two militaries have been few and far between.
The UK and France are optimum partners for defence cooperation as the make-up of their armed forces is broadly similar: their budgets represent 40 per cent of the defence spending within Europe and 50 per cent of the equipment budget. In an age of austerity, with the economic and political costs of maintaining full-spectrum capabilities no longer as affordable as they once were, France and the UK should seize upon the potential for a practical defence partnership.
Although an enhanced defence bi-lateral should be based on finding cost-effective capability sharing mechanisms - in essence sharing it or losing it - it cannot simply be based on current budgetary pressures. As defence planning and industry are long-term projects, having only this short-term motivation would cause problems for both sides in the long run.
The importance of industrial support
Furthermore, if budgetary pressures become the defining criteria, then joint planning and strategy building (in the next British SDSR, for example) will push defence planners down the road of a financial review rather than consider a more strategic agenda. Government support for this cooperation will be important, but industry initiative is essential. If only political perspectives are involved, with industry failing to fill out the details, then the relationship will flounder in lofty ideals.
Likewise, industrial initiative without government support or engaged political leadership will ultimately cause unnecessary inter-service rivalries to surface both in France and the UK for fear of losing prime military assets.
Complementing other partnerships
Meanwhile, the defence partnerships which these two countries have already developed respectively with the United States and Germany do not necessarily constitute mutually exclusive options. There is certainly space for greater efficiency in the defence procurement realm, as well as value in increasing one's strategic options.
To some degree, the dependence on the US which the UK has now built into its strategic thinking is no longer viable. While the US will remain a primary security partner for the UK, it is now clear that the UK faces difficult choices in terms of maintaining its entire range of defence capabilities. Because of its size, the US model is becoming increasingly unattainable for the UK which must today consider its own national requirements and force structures.
The Strategic Defence and Security Review is a perfect time for British defence planners to investigate more cost-effective synergies with their French counterparts. The White Paper's consultations should likewise give the UK's allies a chance to give constructive feedback on what the UK's practical contribution could be to, say, European defence capabilities which Liam Fox's team so often decried when in opposition.
France had already attempted to do this when having consulted the UK regarding the French Defence and National Security White Paper in 2008, and growing commonality in their strategic mindsets will be essential moving forwards. Co-operation of this type, combined with an effort to re-build momentum surrounding France's re-integration into the NATO Military Command Structure, presents both states with a superb opportunity.