Air tankers eyed in UK, France cooperation talks

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain and France are discussing Britain’s new fleet of refuelling planes ahead of a summit expected to herald greater defence cooperation, the consortium leasing the aircraft said on Thursday.

Britain has signed a deal worth 10.2 billion pounds over 27 years to lease 14 modified Airbus A330 aircraft, supplied by EADS, to provide the military with air-to-air refuelling capability.

Asked about reports Britain may share the new planes with France, an AirTanker spokesman said: “We understand that discussions are taking place between the UK and France at a government-to-government level about various defence capabilities, including the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft.”

“AirTanker is providing advice and support,” he said.

The consortium gave no details but the terms of the lease would permit Britain to sub-let any of the refuelling aircraft it does not need to other countries, cutting costs and gaining a share of the revenue.

Sharing the planes with France could suit both countries as they try to curb defence spending to tackle big budget deficits.

Britain is due to start taking delivery of the new planes next year. British lawmakers have criticised the programme as poor value for money.

AirTanker is a consortium including European aerospace group EADS, Rolls-Royce, Babcock, Cobham and Thales.

The leaders of France and Britain meet in London on Tuesday when they are expected to agree to deeper defence cooperation.

In a sweeping military review published last week, Britain said it would intensify its defence and security relationship with France, and that a British aircraft carrier due to come into service in 2020 would be modified to allow it to host French combat jets.

In an interview published in a French newspaper this week, French Defence Minister Herve Morin said cooperation could include joint deployment, sharing aircraft carriers and sharing refuelling planes.

Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Dave Zimmerman