At the UK-France summit in London earlier today, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy issued a declaration and signed a formal Defence Treaty that signalled a new era of defence cooperation. Letters of intent were exchanged and a Road Map agreed for deeper cooperation in the future. Three years in the making, the arrangement focuses on joint capabilities and procurement, but also to a limited extent, operations. There are two areas of specific note in the nuclear field:
1) Britain and France would share the costs of constructing cutting edge new nuclear research facilities in both countries, without exchanging data. This would include some sort of a rota system to protect the data to reassure the Americans of the security of their designs, and to ensure that Article 1 of the NPT (outlawing the transfer of warhead technology) is respected. This agreement is to last 50 years, or around two generations in the development of the technology. Whether the two countries succeed in resisting the temptation to collaborate and share data and findings as scientists mingle remains to be seen.
The purpose of the facilities is officially to improve warhead design for safety and reliability, but could also be used for improved redesigns that could lead to additional capability. Collaboration around new warhead designs is at present off the table – France is soon to have completed the development of a new warhead, and Britain is not due to consider any such redesign until 2019 at the earliest (according to the new Strategic Defence and Security Review [SDSR] published two weeks ago).
2) Both countries will next year initiate a study into potential cooperation around nuclear submarine components and technology. There is no suggestion yet that this would involve joint procurement of the submarine as a whole system, but the potential is clearly there in the future. Both countries struggle to maintain the necessary industrial capacity with short production runs for their own domestic procurement – and this is an obvious solution to this problem.
So what does this leave for nuclear arms control? While it would appear that this level of cooperation does not yet break the letter of the NPT, the fact that two nuclear weapon states are planning this level of shared investment and cooperation in nuclear weapon research and technology development, under an agreement that will last 50 years, will be picked up by other NPT members as a poor signal for their commitment to disarmament.
It also raises the question whether this defence cooperation will also lead to a level of diplomatic cooperation. It is clear that the timing of this summit was to pre-date the NATO summit, due in a couple of weeks. Have the British and French sewn up the European end around NATO’s nuclear posture, for example? Are we likely to see a more conservative document as a result, sapping the ambitions of other influential European allies keen to see progress on NATO’s nuclear disarmament credentials? Will this lead to greater diplomatic cooperation with regards to the wider non-proliferation regime? And if so, will it result in positions that are closer to the French skepticism towards the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, or towards what has up to now been a UK consensus behind the vision, and some tentative unilateral steps in that direction (the last ones being the changes to declaratory policy and warhead reductions announced two weeks ago in the SDSR). It is yet too early to say, and it would be unduly cynical, or optimistic, to guess.
UK–France Summit 2010 Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation
UK Prime Minister’s website, November 2, 2010
On nuclear cooperation:
Treaty Between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and The French Republic Relating to Joint Radiographic/Hydrodynamics Facilities
Treaty Between the United Kingdom of Great Britian and Northern Ireland and the French Republic for Defence and Security Cooperation
The treaties will be passing through both Parliaments for ratification over the next few weeks.