On Display: British Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and France's President François Hollande, center, greet members of the French military Jan. 31 at the UK Royal Air Force's Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. Along with military aircraft, France's véhicule blindé combat d'infanterie was on display at the bilateral summit. (AFP/Getty Images)
LONDON AND PARIS — When France sent an infantry fighting vehicle to Britain for a Jan. 31 bilateral summit, Paris was signaling not only the close ties between the Army chiefs of the two countries, but also that London may choose to purchase the vehicle, a British official said.
A presentation of the véhicule blindé combat d’infanterie to British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande was “an interesting development,” the official said.
The infantry fighting vehicle, built by Nexter and Renault Trucks Defense, was the only land weapon on display amid the summit’s larger focus on military aircraft when the political leaders met at the Royal Air Force’s Brize Norton base.
An earlier idea to send over some 60 units, then around 20, as reported in French business daily Les Echos, fell apart as British law prevented such a deal, a French industry executive said. The dispatch of one unit was manageable.
The French vehicle has begun a series of British evaluation tests. The Army could be gathering data ahead of a relaunch of a requirement to acquire an eight-wheeled vehicle as early as 2015-’16, a British industry executive said. In 2008, Britain scrapped a deal with General Dynamics UK to buy its Piranha V vehicle.
Hollande “has agreed we can test their latest armored vehicle, the VBCI ... which, if we choose to purchase, would also increase the ability of our forces to fight alongside one another,” Cameron said at the summit.
The Army-to-Army connection is “positive and practical,” as the two forces seek cooperation, the British official said. The Army chiefs, Gen. Sir Peter Wall and Gen. Bertrand Ract-Madoux, have a good relationship, the official said.
London’s positive view of the VBCI is a swing from two years ago, when the vehicle had no chance of being chosen for the Future Rapid Effects System, a program to equip the British Army with new armored vehicles, the official said.
VBCI and the Dutch-German Boxer vehicle were evaluated alongside the Piranha V as part of the competition. Both non-UK vehicles failed to meet British requirements.
But the prospects for the French vehicle are higher. “VBCI would be a very good candidate,” the official said.
That is due partly to a British reorganization to create a highly centralized planning function.
On the technical front, the VCBI fits three key British needs: reliability and “change-out” of the engine; blast protection; and growth potential, the official said.
A senior French executive said there is British Army interest because “the VBCI is combat-proven, it exists. If the price is right.”
Like other European nations, Britain is struggling with tightening defense budgets.
Ahead of publication of a 10-year equipment plan expected in the next few days, the UK Defence Ministry would not say whether there was money allocated for a VBCI-type vehicle.
Industry expects activity to get underway in 2015-’16 with an in-service date around 2022. That timetable could be overturned, however, by a deal with the French on VBCI, particularly if Paris opts to acquire British equipment as some sort of quid pro quo with London.
France has been testing the British Army’s Watchkeeper UAV, built by Thales UK, and has shown interest in the BAE Systems Terrier, an armored combat engineer vehicle.
The VBCI has been sent to Lebanon, Afghanistan and Mali.
Manufacturers also have addressed British requirements by allowing for a quick engine change, the executive said.
The engine is a commercial model, making it reliable. The growth potential is 4 tons, as the VBCI can run at 32 tons compared to the previous 28.
The French authorities have tested the vehicle for blast protection to meet NATO standards, the executive said.
There is confidence the unit will survive a British test. But Britain lacks a budget in the short term, the executive said.
At the summit, a demonstration featured a Watchkeeper, the Airbus A400M airlifter and A330 multirole tanker and transport plane, and the Boeing C-17 transport plane.