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Navy plans to combine forces with the French

Britain and France are preparing to reveal unprecedented plans to share the use of their aircraft carriers in a controversial step to maintain military power in an era of cost-cutting.

In a potential threat to thousands of shipyard jobs, the move would make it easier for Britain to scrap or downgrade one of the two replacement carriers which are already under construction at a cost of £5.2 billion.

David Cameron and President Sarkozy are expected to outline the proposal in a November summit, which will lead to British and French flagships working together and protecting the interests of both countries.

The arrangement, expected to come into force soon after the announcement, would ensure that one of three ships — one French, two British — was always on duty patrolling the seas. At present, there are periods when both ageing British vessels — HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious — are in dock.

Critics questioned the viability of such a partnership, noting British and French interests historically differ. Gwyn Prins, a research professor at the London School of Economics, said: “At first glance it may seem sensible to pool aircraft carriers with the French. But a moment’s reflection in the light of past history and of modern geopolitics shows why that is unwise.”

The plan comes as the Armed Forces are under pressure to cut costs and continue to protect Britain’s national interests, as part of the defence review. A final decision on the future of the replacement carriers will come in October in the Comprehensive Spending Review. One carrier could be scrapped, built to a lower specification, or even sold to another nation.

Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, meets French counterparts on Friday, having repeatedly visited Paris for discussions before the election.

A Whitehall source said: “Liam has made it clear that we want more co-operation as we have to face up to the world we are living in. The advantage is that if we are going to have one carrier, then at least we can project our power on the sea even if we go down to a single carrier.”

Discussions are under way to devise a protocol in case a British interest, such as the Falkland Islands, comes under threat when the French are in charge. Each carrier would remain within its domestic chain of command, with the British vessels only taking orders from Royal Navy officers.

President Sarkozy told ambassadors last week: “France is prepared to undertake concrete projects. I heard our British allies’ statements on bilateral co-operation with France. We will discuss this with them without taboos and take important decisions in November.”

Sources close to the National Security Council, the new Cabinet group which decides the direction of British foreign policy, said that Dr Fox was minded to give the go-ahead to both carriers, but the second may have its capability downgraded.A cut-down carrier would be able to carry an army brigade and could be used as a base for a troop landing, which would mean it could take helicopters rather than jets.

However, the fast jets envisaged for the new British carriers would not be able to fly off the French version and French aircraft would be unable to use the British model.

A Navy source said that the plan would add welcome flexibility to combined operations, but added: “Using each other’s carriers would require decisions to be made at the strategic level so that national aims on any given operation would be the same.”

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