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
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.”