* Cooperation is driven by economic austerity
* Militaries worked together in Libya and Mali
* Tough case like Falklands could test the pact
By Mohammed Abbas and Mark John
LONDON/PARIS, March 1 Dubbed the "entente
frugale" by wags and criticised by some as a dangerous dilution
of military sovereignty, Franco-British defence cooperation is
nonetheless growing stronger.
Shrinking budgets, a less indulgent United States and
Europe's diminishing military clout in the world have bolstered
the two countries' determination to work together.
That contrasts with the prickly relations between French and
British politicians, who have come to blows in recent months on
everything from taxes to the European Union budget.
"While the politicians may trade barbs, defence knows
there's nowhere else to go other than working closely together,"
said James Arbuthnot, head of the British parliament's Defence
"At the defence level the cooperation and friendships are
more than cordial, they are warm," he said, joking that he had
forgiven France for killing an ancestor at Trafalgar.
But there have been hiccups in the complex business of
bringing Europe's two biggest militaries together.
Britain has in recent weeks helped France with logistics in
Mali, where French forces are battling Islamist rebels, but
senior military officials had to step in when British pilots
refused to carry French ration packs containing matches.
"So what? You can't carry matches or lighters on British
military planes. I think we can work around that," said a French
military official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There's no question how strong our military ties are.
There is no questioning the need for strong defence cooperation,
everyone's convinced of that on both sides of the channel."
There are more serious problems in cooperation on equipment
projects, and some question how much each country is prepared to
depend on the other to defend vital national interests.
"WE PAY AND WE PLAY"
Since the Lancaster House defence cooperation treaties of
2010, Britain and France have joined forces to counter Islamists
in Mali and helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
Last month pilots from each country flew the other's new
fighter jets for the first time, following a major joint naval
exercise in October dubbed "Corsican Lion", part of efforts to
create a Combined Joint Expeditionary Force by 2016.
And in an unusual step that Arbuthnot labelled an "extreme
courtesy", France has invited Britain's ambassador - along with
a German diplomat - to help draft France's next long-term
military plan, the Livre Blanc.
U.N. Security Council members France and Britain together
account for around half of European military spending, have
armed forces of similar size and are unafraid to deploy troops -
"We pay and we play", in the words of one British official.
But for decades Britain closely allied its defence strategy
to that of the United States, while France sought to develop
independent military muscle, and in 1966 left U.S.-dominated
NATO's integrated military structure.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 brought
France back into the NATO military fold.
"In terms of the defence relationship, Sarkozy was a gift to
us," said a British official.
Fears that Sarkozy's replacement by socialist Francois
Hollande would undermine the entente have proved unfounded.
"Everyone was nervous when Sarkozy left. Sarkozy and Cameron
really had camaraderie. But the politics is to all intents and
purposes unchanged. The goodwill is still there," the British
France and Britain played leading roles, along with the
United States, in the 2011 NATO aerial campaign over Libya.
"Libya was their first conflict since the return to NATO
military structures and they found it quite helpful. It was
quite a formative experience for them," said a NATO diplomat.
"OTHERS GETTING BIGGER"
European economic woes are even deeper now than in 2010,
when Britain began cutting defence spending to the current level
of about $52 billion, a similar budget to France's.
China, India and other emerging powers are increasing
defence spending. The United States has made clear it is fed up
with picking up much of the tab for European security and has
demanded its allies do more as it pivots towards Asia.
"Look at the geopolitical evolution of the world. It's not
that we're getting small due to our economic situation, it's
just that others are getting much bigger. The scale is no longer
the nation state," said a French diplomatic source.
Further yoking the two militaries together are joint
equipment projects, including nuclear missile testing.
British defence contractor BAE Systems and France's
Dassault Aviation were last year awarded a contract to
develop next-generation unmanned drone aircraft.
There are still sore points. Cameron has tried to persuade
India to ditch a multi-billion dollar order of France's flagship
fighter jet, the Dassault-built Rafale, and instead pick the
Typhoon, built by BAE and European partners.
"We cannot afford any more to have the Typhoon vs Rafale.
The idea is to have one future combat air system, a
Franco-British one," said the French military source.
Experts say plans to cooperate on testing nuclear warheads
in Britain and in France are on track. France has traditionally
made much of its independent nuclear might, while Britain has
relied in part on U.S. kit.
"Which other nations can work together on such a key element
of sovereignty, opening a bit of that sanctum of a nation's
insurance policy to another?" said the French diplomatic source.
Cooperation has been hindered by timing. Britain set out its
10-year military strategy in a 2010 review, while France's Livre
Blanc is due in spring.
"There is a lack of alignment in policies between France and
the UK so far. There is a gap in understanding between
industries and governments," said defence analyst Claire Chick.
There is a limit to how far Britain can rely on French
military help, Arbuthnot said, citing the example of the
Falkland Islands, over which it warred with Argentina in 1982.
Argentina has in recent months stepped up its rhetoric in
staking its claim to "Las Malvinas".
"Doing more with allies means that you have to decide to get
rid of capability because you will be relying on your ally to
provide that capability in times of need," Arbuthnot said.
"How can we be sure, and this is an existential question,
that that capability would be available even after a change of
government in our allied country and in circumstances where that
ally profoundly disagreed with our policy?"
Paris sees the issue differently. "The Falklands is not a
good question. What if? You have hundreds of cases with no
answers," the French official said, adding the real question was
whether a country could afford full military capability alone.
"If that's the case, then there is no need for cooperation.
If it's not the case, then you may have to accept some risks,
and choose a partner you're ready to work with."
(Additional reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche)