Rejuvenated Interest: A Jan. 31 meeting between French and British leaders could result in joint defense projects, including French interest in the Thales UK-built Watchkeeper drone. Here, a Watchkeeper sits at Royal Air Force base Waddington in the UK. (Getty Images)
LONDON AND PARIS — An upcoming Anglo-French summit could breathe fresh life into a bilateral defense relationship seen as faded, with industry waiting to hear if there is progress on an anti-ship missile and a future combat drone for the two nations.
Prime Minister David Cameron and President François Hollande are due to meet Jan. 31 at Royal Air Force base Brize Norton in southern England.
“We hope to have significant announcements,” a British source said.
Among potential announcements are a contract for MBDA’s Anti-Navire Léger/Future Air-to-Surface Guided Weapon (Heavy), a helicopter-borne, anti-ship missile, and a joint demonstrator program for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), the source said.
A statement on French interest in the Thales UK-built Watchkeeper drone could also be included.
Some in Britain say there has been little to show for industry under the defense treaty signed in London in 2010, then seen as marking out the two leading martial powers in Europe.
Part of the hiatus has been due to a French defense and security review ordered after the 2012 general election, followed by drafting the 2014-19 multiyear military budget.
Now that France has completed the two studies, Hollande has a clearer view that allows him to green light industrial projects set out in the 50-year treaty signed at Lancaster House in London.
“The missile development contract has been signable for many weeks, and I would expect that to go forward,” said one industry executive in Britain. “What they say on progress towards jointly building a UCAV operational demonstrator depends more on the overall tone of the summit at the political level.
“If they want to indicate internationally they are marching together, they will give a positive signal in this area; if they don’t feel comfortable, they likely won’t,” the executive said.
“Either way, though, that doesn’t mean the project isn’t going to continue.”
Despite the possibility of progress, particularly on the missile front, and possibly on the UCAV and Watchkeeper unmanned air vehicle, most people seem to agree the defense treaty is not what it was.
Tense negotiations, which involved Cameron and Hollande, over getting the French to go ahead with a key British missile requirement, eroded goodwill, a second British executive said.
“Two years ago, the only default position for the British on joint weapons programs was ‘let’s talk to the French about a bilateral.’ Now it’s ‘let’s talk to the Germans, the Swedes or the Italians,’ ” he said. “They are not always just looking to talk to the French anymore.”
Executives in Britain also say they are not engaged in the industrial aspects of the defense treaty to the extent they were with the joint working groups involving French and UK companies. The working groups, set up in the wake of the treaty, are now seen as pretty much defunct.
Tense Cross-Channel Politics
On the political front, Cameron and Hollande have been sniping at each other, as respectively a conservative and socialist leader seeks to promote his own economic policy.
For instance, Grant Shapps, Conservative party chairman and reportedly close to Cameron, recently said Hollande was driving the French economy “into the sand.”
Last month, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said, “The situation in Great Britain, with the mass poverty it has produced, is a lot worse than in France,” business daily Financial Times reported.
“If I seek a model for reforming France, it is certainly not by copying others that are not better,” Ayrault said.
British plans to hold the summit at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire were hastily rearranged when the location was deemed unacceptable because it is named after a famous British win against the French in the 1704 battle of Blenheim.
Instead, the two sides will meet at the Brize Norton air base where part of the summit will take place at the AirTanker hangar that houses the Airbus A330s, which provide an inflight refueling service for the Royal Air Force.
“That has symbolic value as Airbus is one of Europe’s great industrial success stories. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but with the French also buying the same aircraft, it’s a pity the two sides don’t announce a study to pool their resources and help close one of the big capability gaps in Europe,” said the second British executive.
Despite a tense political climate, the summit could bring positive defense news, a researcher said.
“The Anglo-French summit is being held in the midst of a difficult political climate for European defense,” said Louis Gautier, international relations professor at Sorbonne Paris 1 university. “The context is not very favorable.”
In Britain, there is generally an anti-Europe approach, reflecting conservative Cameron’s domestic political context, he said.
Between Britain and France, however, there is military cooperation as shown in the Libya campaign.
The December meeting of the European Council on defense showed little support among the heads of state and government to work together, Gautier said.
However, recent German statements and the European Union’s decisions to provide military support to France in the Central African Republic are positive, he said.
Berlin has agreed to send transport planes to support the European intervention in the Central African Republic but refuses to send troops.
Paris therefore expects London to make gestures in the same direction, although the British can already point to support of French forces with air transports in Mali and the Central African Republic.
“So we can have some hope that the next summit between UK and France could yield some positive statements on defense, reflecting the bilateral closeness between London and Paris,” Gautier said.
Signing a deal for the anti-ship missile would likely trigger a separate British contract to build and integrate the MBDA missile, and a smaller weapon developed by Thales UK. The latter is known as the Lightweight Modular Missile and would arm the AgustaWestland Wildcat helicopter scheduled to enter service with the Royal Navy next year.
On the plans to build an operational demonstrator of a combat drone by 2025, BAE Systems and Dassault are responsible for the airframe, Thales and Selex on electronics, and Rolls-Royce and Snecma on the motor.
Industry hopes for an order for a demonstrator model, an industry executive said.
“The six companies have sent in proposals to the British and French procurement offices, and wait for a decision,” said Rémy Letscher, director for military aircraft engines at Snecma, part of the Safran group.
Last year, Rolls and Snecma submitted a report to British and French procurement offices after completing a 15-month preparation phase contract. Their joint report set out how to mature and demonstrate critical technology and operational aspects for a future combat drone.
Rolls and Snecma have agreed to a cooperation deal, which sets out their work areas if the demonstrator is launched, Letscher said.
“We expect a program launch in April, if not then later in 2014,” he said. “There is no worry.”
Thales and Selex submitted a joint proposal on sensors and communications, including a high resolution active electronically scanned array radar and electronic warfare systems.
“We are ready,” an executive said.
A demonstrator would help the forces see how a combat drone fits into the operational picture.
An operational demonstrator would be a first step to validate the technology, allow the air forces to understand the capabilities and help them draw up operational needs, a second executive said.
The French Air Force wants an operational demonstrator, flown by aircrews, tested on the shooting range, and for operations such as early warning and high-end training missions, an officer said.
Dassault’s Neuron is only a technology demonstrator, which makes it difficult to develop concepts and doctrines, the officer said.
If a program launch were announced for the anti-ship missile, it would “kick off” an industrial reorganization in Britain and France for manufacturer MBDA, an industry executive said.
That is a consolidation based on 12 centers of excellence on both sides of the English Channel, backed by an interdependency concept under the one complex weapons plan for MBDA.
“This could be a test case for industry,” the executive said.