LONDON—Europe’s two nuclear-armed powers will strike a deal Tuesday to share warhead testing facilities as the leaders of Britain and France finalize plans for unprecedented cooperation on defense and security.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will hold talks in London and pledge a new era of collaboration—seeking to bolster ties, but also spread the hefty costs of defense as their economies recover from the global financial crisis.
The continent’s two largest military powers will also announce the formation of a joint expeditionary force—a pool of about 5,000 troops able to deploy together at short notice on peacekeeping, rescue or combat missions.
Senior British officials said the two countries will also agree to some shared use of each other’s aircraft carriers, meaning fighter jets from both countries will be able to land on vessels from either country—initially during training.
The two nations will cooperate on the development of new unmanned aerial drones, satellite communications and submarine technology. London and Paris are also likely to strengthen intelligence sharing under the deal, officials said.
“Britain and France do share a real interest here,” Cameron told lawmakers on Monday. “There are many areas where we can work together and enhance our capabilities—and save money at the same time.”
Last month, Britain announced an 8 percent cut to the annual 37 billion pound ($59 billion) defense budget over four years and confirmed 17,000 troops, a fleet of jets and an aging aircraft carrier would all be lost to cuts.
Under the nuclear warhead plan, Britain and France will save money by sharing equipment and facilities at the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston in southern England, and the Valduc facility, close to Dijon, southeast of Paris.
The French laboratory will host British defense scientists to carry out tests on their country’s nuclear warhead stockpile—soon to be cut to 120. In return, French officials will be stationed at the U.K.’s facility to work on nuclear test technology.
Both nations are signatories to the U.N. nuclear test ban treaty, and so use laboratory tests on warhead components. Cost of building the French site, to be operative for several decades, will be shared equally.
Working so closely together “will create a climate of confidence” between teams while allowing both sides to retain “full sovereignty over their results,” the French president’s office said, calling the accord unprecedented.
British officials acknowledged the deal would involve closer than ever cooperation on their nuclear weapons program with the French, but insisted they would not divulge nuclear secrets.
Cameron told lawmakers the defense deal would not compromise the ability of either country to carry out military operations alone in the future. “Partnership, yes. But giving away sovereignty? No,” Cameron told the House of Commons.
A combined pool of British and French troops will be able to carry out missions from next year, and will also conduct training exercises in 2011. The pool is likely to include special forces.
“We are almost going back to the very close cooperation we had in the Cold War era,” Gen. David Richards, head of Britain’s armed forces, told BBC radio on Monday.
Though the countries worked closely in Bosnia and Kosovo, France opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and only rejoined the NATO command structure in 2009 after an absence of about 40 years.
Cameron told British lawmakers that the joint force was not intended as a stepping stone to a combined European military.
“To those who worry that this might in some way lead to sort of European armies—that is not the point. The point is to enhance sovereign capability by two like-minded countries being able to work together,” he said.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin—who will travel to London with Sarkozy, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and other officials—told the La Tribune newspaper last week the two countries would help each other cope with tight defense budgets.
Morin told the newspaper he had asked France’s military chiefs “to think about the feasibility of putting British planes on our own aircraft carriers and vice versa.”
He confirmed Britain and France will cooperate over training for crews on new A400M troop transport aircraft and on the use of aircraft refueling technology.