PARIS — The UK expects to revive funding in arms programs after struggling with a straitened budget, with submarines, armored vehicles, helicopters and the two new aircraft carriers seen as beneficiaries, a British defense official said.
“It has taken three or four years of quite painful decisions to reduce the size of our army in particular, and to cancel some of the more expensive programs,” the official said. “That is now behind us.
“The last army redundancies were last month and we are able now — because the budget is settled — to invest for the future,” the official said. “So we are able to move forward now and to give our armed forces the equipment they deserve.”
Britain heads into a general election in May next year, and a strategic defense and security review is expected to be launched some time after.
Political relations went through a chill recently as Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the French sale to Russia of the Mistral helicopter carrier, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius struck back with dripping sarcasm on the lack of British activism against Russian oligarchs invested heavily in London.
“Sanctions are difficult for all member states of the European Union,” the official said. “It was very important to show the burden was being shared.
All of us in imposing sanctions, of course, have to take some pain, but the actual decision on any particular issue is for the French government,” the official said.
But on the defense front, the bilateral relations seem to be unharmed.
The UK intends to pursue cooperation with France in future arms programs, with the sights set for a signing as soon as possible this year of a contract for a bilateral feasibility study for the future combat air system, a combat drone. The FCAS is seen as very important.
The two countries signed at Farnborough International Air Show a memorandum of understanding for the study, which is seen as critical as retaining and expanding technical expertise for British and French industry. BAE Systems and Dassault Aviation, Rolls-Royce and Safran, and Selex and Thales are the lead companies on the FCAS project.
Britain and France also are in talks on armored vehicle requirements. The French Army has lent a véhicule blindé de combat et de l’infanterie, in the hope Britain will order the infantry fighting vehicle built by Nexter and Renault Trucks Defense.
The armies of the two countries are in talks on how the British service can “evaluate” the vehicle this year, a second official said.
French media reports have tied a possible French order for the Watchkeeper tactical unmanned aerial vehicle with a British order for the VBCI, an interlinking that is not pursued by London.
The UK looks at the programs on an individual basis and does not draw “direct linkages in terms of ‘you buy this, we’ll buy that,’” the first official said.
In the missile sector, France and the UK are pursuing a joint refurbishment of the Storm Shadow-Scalp cruise missile, and have launched a program for a helicopter borne anti-ship missile — the future anti-surface guided weapon (heavy), or anti-navire leger.
Britain seeks to boost interoperability with French forces, so the services can work with each wherever they are sent around the world, the official said.
“That means looking very closely at the procurement programs on both sides of the Channel and see what we can do together,” the official said.
The level of military and industrial cooperation between the two countries is now at the deepest for a couple of decades, the official said.
The UK is ready to help France in its operations in sub-Sahara Africa, with the assistance of transport aircraft and surveillance.
Britain sees the NATO summit as coming at a critical time, with the crisis in Ukraine on the eastern flank, as some members pull out of Afghanistan, deepening instability in the Middle East and dangers of “ever present dangers of terrorism,” the official said.
Britain will play host to the NATO summit due in September, the first time the alliance – led by the heads of governments - has met in the UK for 24 years. ■