PARIS — France has sent a positive but cautious reply to British requests for cooperation on producing a new anti-ship missile, widely seen as a test of the 2010 Lancaster House bilateral defense treaty, sources close to the program said.
French President François Hollande sent the letter last week to British Prime Minister David Cameron on the helicopter-borne missile, known in French as anti-navire léger (ANL) and in the U.K. as the future air-to-surface guided weapon (FASGW) (heavy), two French defense sources said.
“10 Downing Street has received the Hollande letter,” one source said, adding that the response in London was positive, even though Hollande stopped short of committing to the program.
A second source said Hollande wrote that he wants to see the ANL program launched, after outlining the budgetary difficulties facing France. The source added that Hollande considers the ANL missile as being at the heart of cooperation between the two countries.
European missile maker MBDA sees a common ANL-FASGW (H) program as vital for an industrial consolidation around 12 centers of excellence.
“The ANL project is a test of the Lancaster House treaty,” said François Cornut-Gentille, a member of the French Parliament and defense specialist who sits on the legislature’s finance committee. “This letter should have been sent six months ago, and we should be closer to a solution.”
Britain and France must cooperate to ensure there is a meaningful military capability in Europe, with the ANL missile program key to that cooperation, he said.
On the other hand, a decision to not join forces with London on building the missile would be seen as undermining the Lancaster House agreement.
The Hollande letter is a sign of “goodwill,” even though it does not resolve the core issue of engaging in the program, a senior analyst said.
Hollande is effectively assuring the British that France is trying to find a solution and above all, he seeks to avoid saying “no,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of think tank Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.
“This is a question of funding,” Maulny said.
Tight funding creates a struggle between the services, which have operational concerns, and industrial policy, which seeks to maintain technology and competencies.
French Navy officers want to conserve funds for frigates and submarines, and not for a missile, an industry executive said, adding that careers are not built on commanding missiles.
France’s struggle over the ANL resembles the situation over the Meteor missile in 2001, Maulny said. The French government signed up to produce a long-range air-to-air weapon mainly for industrial policy reasons, against the wishes of the French Air Force.
The present budgetary uncertainty means it makes sense to avoid making a program commitment, said Loic Tribot La Spiere, chief executive of think tank Centre d’Etude et Prospective Stratégique.
Over the coming weeks, Hollande will decide on the broad lines of military spending leading up to the government’s defense and security white paper.
The government is under pressure to cut the deficit and balance the budget by 2017.
Hollande’s letter follows one sent in January from U.K. Defense Minister Philip Hammond to his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, seeking a French commitment on the missile program.
In February, Cameron wrote to Hollande as it became clear a launch decision depended on the president’s budgetary arbitration.
Cameron and Hollande were due to talk on the phone April 8, but the death of ex-prime minister Margaret Thatcher postponed the call.
Britain wants a missile to arm its Royal Navy Wildcat helicopter, due to enter service in early 2015.
The French Navy, however, sees no need for the new weapon for its NH90 helicopter until 2020.
London was so concerned with Paris signing up that it offered to fund France’s initial share of the estimated 400 million euro ($523 million) development cost, with France taking up the financing later on.
The anti-ship missile was identified as a potential cooperative program under the Lancaster House agreement.
Other programs cited include a 40mm gun using cased telescoped ammunition, anti-mine warfare systems and aircraft carrier presence.
Britain’s decision to build a carrier version that cannot accommodate the French Navy’s Rafale fighter jet jarred nerves in Paris, as did a veto of a common anti-tank missile, the missile moyenne portée, proposed by MBDA. London opted for a planned modernized model of the U.S.-built Javelin.