French President Francois Hollande will soon pronounce his verdict on the “White Book on Defense and National Security,” the blueprint for future missions, structures and capabilities of the armed forces recommended by a commission of senior officials, military brass and parliamentarians.His promise, in a March 28 interview, that defense spending will be “exactly the same amount in 2014 as in 2013” — 31.4 billion euros ($40.2 billion), or 1.56 percent of GDP in 2012 — may calm those who feared a tsunami of cuts. But few believe the French military will be spared further reductions. That same week, the top American and British military chiefs huddled in Washington for an exceptional strategic review. High on their agenda: how to preserve their most vital capabilities, including through bilateral cooperation, in the face of emerging threats and strong pressure on defense spending.
“It’s astonishing that [this meeting] hasn’t happened sooner given how inexorably linked the two nations are on defense matters,” observed a Defense News editorial.
Given these parallel developments, it’s perhaps equally astonishing that many U.S., U.K. and French officials have been reluctant to consider a structured, sustained effort to improve trilateral cooperation. Yet the logic favoring a new “entente cordiale” is compelling.
Despite projected cutbacks, the U.K. and France will retain the most capable, deployable and full-spectrum forces (including their nuclear deterrents) of the European allies. Their sense of global responsibilities and willingness to use military instruments, and to accept risks and losses, in support of their national interests are strikingly similar.
And both understand that key issues shaping their strategic environment, from counterterrorism and weapons proliferation to cyber, drones, nuclear weapons and missile defense, are closely tied to U.S. policies and capabilities.
Key prerequisites for close trilateral cooperation have taken shape in recent years. By rejoining NATO’s integrated military structures in 2009, France laid the groundwork for closer relations with the British and U.S. defense establishments.
In 2010, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed the Lancaster House treaties, launching unprecedented collaboration to create a potent Combined Joint Expeditionary Force and to share laboratories dedicated to nuclear weapons safety and security.
A similar trend has been evident in operations. In Afghanistan, the British long have been the top European contributor and, until last year, the French ranked No. 3.A U.S.-British-French “coalition of the willing” served as the first responder in the 2011 Libyan crisis and prepared the way for the NATO-led operation. More recently, the U.S. has provided extensive support in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), airlift and aerial refueling for French forces in Mali. The British, too, have assisted there with ISR, airlift and training Malian soldiers. In plausible near-term scenarios involving Syria or Iran, it’s easier to envision British and French coordi-nation with the U.S. than it is to imagine their absence. Moreover, as Washington “rebalances” toward the Asia-Pacific region, its interest in more equitable burden-sharing with European allies — a goal broadly shared by London and Paris — likely will grow.
Enhanced military cooperation could take several forms. The U.S., U.K. and French air forces are the most advanced in this respect, thanks to decades of partnering in operations within and outside NATO, numerous officer exchanges in tactical units, unique arrangements for embedding senior officers in each other’s strategic studies groups, and regular high-level consultations and exercises.
In 2012, the three air chiefs identified improvements in mutual command and control (C2) arrangements as their “most important near-term priority.” At their behest, senior officers from the three nations met last December in Lyon, France, to examine technical challenges in upgrading operational interoperability, C2 processes, infrastructure and information sharing.
Habits of cooperation among the three navies and land forces are somewhat less developed. But in recent years, the former have cooperated closely in the Arabian Gulf region and maritime security efforts off Africa’s coasts. And the latter share interests in training local security forces in counterterrorism and peacekeeping across northern and central Africa.
Inevitably, building trilateral cooperation at truly strategic levels involves high politics. The French are sensitive to any perceived loss of strategic independence. Some are prone to cast themselves as pre-eminent advocates of European interests; for France, this also means preserving its defense industries, which face formidable competition from U.S. companies.For many British, increased pragmatic cooperation with France might be attractive in theory, but only if it does not diminish the “special relationship” with the U.S. None of the three allies wants to alienate the other 25 NATO members who would object to any attempt to run the alliance through a “triumvirate.” Still, a new entente cordiale might be the key to helping France and the U.K. emerge from this period of defense austerity with their most important capabilities relatively intact. That would be an enormous strategic benefit for the U.S.
Leo Michel is a distinguished research fellow at National Defense University, Washington. These are his personal views.