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World News

France and UK plan unprecedented military cooperation

LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Britain and France will launch a broad defense partnership on Tuesday that includes setting up a joint force and sharing equipment and nuclear missile research centers, a French government source said.

Treaties to be signed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron at a meeting in London will pave the way for an unprecedented degree of military cooperation between the two neighbors.

The NATO allies, western Europe’s biggest defense spenders and its only nuclear powers, have a centuries-old history of military rivalry and, more recently, have differed sharply over issues such as the Iraq war.

Their new partnership is driven by the desire to maintain cutting-edge military capabilities while at the same time reducing defense spending to rein in big budget deficits.

France and Britain will agree to set up a joint brigade-sized army contingent with air and sea support, which could assemble as needed to take part in NATO, European Union, United Nations or bilateral operations, the French source said.

British Defense Secretary Liam Fox confirmed the outlines of the agreement.

“We’re talking about joint expeditionary forces with our forces in all three services working together to develop common practices, better inter-operability, and to look to see where we get better common equipment,” Fox told BBC television.

“That makes perfect sense in a world where resources are tight, but our interests are increasingly common, but not always the same.”

Cameron’s government announced two weeks ago it was cutting Britain’s 37 billion pound ($59.4 billion) defense budget by 8 percent in real terms over the next four years to help rein in a record peacetime budget deficit.

COOPERATING ON CARRIERS

France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and a British carrier that is just being built will be made compatible so that each country could fly its planes off the other’s carrier.

The ultimate aim is for the two countries to coordinate so that one carrier is at sea at all times.

The two countries will agree to share nuclear warhead research and simulation centers, the source said. With nuclear missile tests banned, sophisticated laboratories permit both countries to test the safety of their warheads.

“This signifies that we have reached an unprecedented level of trust,” the French source said. “It’s this step taken in the nuclear domain that allows us to go further elsewhere.”

The source said London and Paris were negotiating with Airbus on a deal to maintain their future fleet of A400M military transport planes. The contract is expected to be signed at the end of 2011, he said.

France will look at using some of the spare capacity that Britain expects to have in military refueling planes once it takes delivery of 14 new Airbus tankers, the source said.

British legislators have criticized Britain’s 10 billion pound ($16 billion) contract to lease tankers from an EADS-led consortium as poor value for money -- but allowing France some use of them could mitigate this.

A top British military official has said it would make sense for the U.S. Air Force also to choose EADS tankers, rather than ones made by U.S. company Boeing.

Britain and France will work together in developing technology for future generations of nuclear submarines, missiles, aerial drones, maritime anti-mine systems and military communications satellites, the source said.

They will also seek to strengthen their cooperation in cyber security and the fight against terrorism.

Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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