U.K., France Up Armed Cooperation With Drones, Missiles

The British and French governments signed agreements to cooperate on building drones, anti-ship missiles and mine detectors as they sought to kick-start cooperation between Europe’s leading military powers.

The accords were signed by French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron at an airbase near Oxford, England, where they met today for a summit that also discussed the Middle East and the future of the European Union.

Three years ago, the two governments pledged in what’s known as the Lancaster House Treaty to intertwine their armed forces through joint operations and purchases. While cooperation on the countries’ nuclear deterrents has advanced and their armed forces increasingly exchange officers, there have yet to be any savings from jointly procuring costly weaponry.

“We are both similar-sized countries, with similar-sized militaries and similar ambitions,” Cameron said at a news conference with Hollande. “If we work together, our budgets will go further, and we will have a greater global impact.”

Among the accords signed at Brize Norton air base was a memorandum of understanding to develop a drone along the lines of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.’s Predator. Six companies -- Dassault Aviation SA, BAE Systems Plc, Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, Selex ES Ltd., Thales SA, and Safran SA -- were chosen for a 120 million-pound ($200 million) two-year feasibility study.

‘Step Forward’

“This is a major step forward in Franco-British military aeronautical cooperation,” Dassault said in a statement. BAE also welcomed the accord.

Development work on the anti-ship missile system was entrusted to MBDA, which is owned by Airbus Group NV, BAE, and Italy’s Finmeccanica SpA.

“Lancaster House hasn’t produced any announcements the public would notice,” said Martin Michelot, head of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based research organization. “One of the goals of the summit is to repair that. The problems are not unique to France and Britain. It’s the usual challenge of getting industrial companies to work together.”

At the news conference, Hollande said his government is considering buying Watchkeeper surveillance drones, which are built by Thales of France and used by the U.K. military, while Britain may buy VBCI armored carriers built by France’s Nexter Systems SA.

Airbus Deliveries

Hollande and Cameron also agreed that the U.K. will take earlier delivery of two Airbus A400M aircraft by swapping delivery slots with France.

Today’s agreements called for France and Britain to be able to mount joint military interventions by 2016.

Hollande thanked Britain for its airlift support during last year’s military operations in Mali, with many of those Royal Air Force flights taking off from Brize Norton. The two countries also jointly led the air war over Libya in 2011.

There have been other areas of cooperation since Lancaster House, signed by Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.

“The nuclear cooperation agreed at Lancaster House has advanced quite well, but being nuclear, they talk about it less,” said Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, a research institute. “Their nuclear R&D activities are now well integrated.”

Predators Bought

European defense companies have lagged behind their U.S. and Israeli counterparts in building unmanned aerial vehicles, and both Britain and France have bought Predators.

Last month, all 28 countries in the European Union agreed to cooperate on building surveillance drones to enter service after 2020.

Today’s summit, which was attended by foreign, defense and energy ministers, also discussed Syria and Iran, the two leaders said.

Hollande and Cameron said they would share intelligence to stem the flow of volunteers from their countries who have joined Islamic insurgents in Syria. The French president told the news conference that between 600 and 700 young men from each country have joined radical groups.

A French official later told reporters the figure was closer to 350 for Britain and about 500 for France.

“We will work together on the security risk of British and French nationals who travel to Syria to carry out jihad, and then return home,” Cameron said.

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