Britain explores sharing defence equipment with Europe

Britain explores sharing defence equipment with Europe

Clara Marina O'Donnell
15 February 2010

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

With its public finances under growing strain, Britain may soon be forced to look at saving defence costs by pooling its military assets with those of its allies. The decision will not be taken until after the next general election (which will probably be held in May 2010). In the meantime, however, the issues at stake have been set out in a report published by the ministry of defence on February 3rd.

The ministry of defence’s green paper lays out the main questions for the forthcoming strategic defence review. It is the first British government document to put such a strong emphasis on exploring the possibilities for integrating defence forces amongst allies. The proposals reflect the extent of the financial constraints on the British defence budget. Indeed, the report warns that the UK “cannot proceed with the activities and programmes [it] currently aspires to, while simultaneously supporting [its] current operations and investing in the new capabilities [it] needs.” While restating the importance of bilateral relations with the US, the paper also, unusually, highlights the possibility of pooling assets and specialising in certain equipment within the EU, in addition to NATO.

Because of smaller defence budgets, other European countries have already had to start integrating capabilities and specialising. The Czechs notably have chosen to focus on developing expertise against chemical and biological warfare. But to date Britain has been able to maintain the full spectrum of capabilities autonomously and only shares common equipment for space. (The UK is also somewhat dependent on the US for its nuclear deterrent, because it uses US technology.)

Over the last decades, the only cooperative efforts in which Britain has participated have been joint programmes to develop equipment which Britain has then owned nationally. For example, during the Cold War, the UK teamed up with France to develop the Jaguar aircraft and a series of helicopters, and it worked with Germany and Italy to develop the Tornado aircraft. Today, Britain, Germany and Spain are developing the Eurofighter and the UK is part of the European effort to build the A400M military aircraft. Britain is also a leading partner in the transatlantic initiative to build the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. And through the EU’s European Defence Agency, the UK takes part in efforts to explore further common procurement programmes.

The CER has long argued that Britain could increase the cost-effectiveness of its defence procurement by working more closely with its allies – be it through sharing assets or less ambitiously through more co-operation on logistics and training. For some collaborative efforts, working through NATO or the EU can be a useful umbrella (such as conducting research for a next generation of unmanned air vehicles). A large group of countries will provide larger funds and ensure more defence ministries adopt the capabilities developed. This in turn strengthens interoperability and increases the amount of capabilities across Europe. But large groups of countries also make cooperative efforts more cumbersome. So for big ticket items, like aircraft carriers, it makes more sense for Britain to explore possible synergies with only one or two likeminded countries. France is an obvious partner with whom to explore sharing assets. It is the only other country in Europe to have maintained a full spectrum of capabilities and it has a defence budget similar to the UK’s. (While the US is Britain’s closest ally, it is not under the same pressure to pool resources because of its large defence budget.)

If Britain were to pool assets or rely more on allies to provide certain capabilities, its autonomy could be affected – if Britain and France shared a fleet of carriers, France might not agree to send them on a mission to which Britain wanted to contribute. But faced with the prospect of having to abandon some capabilities completely, sharing appears less daunting. (For more on the benefits and costs of pooling assets, see Clara Marina O’Donnell, Britain must pool defence capabilities,CER bulletin October/November 2009.)

To what extent might a Labour or Conservative government explore the possibilities of deeper co-operation with various allies in the forthcoming strategic defence review. The fact that the current government has presented the green paper is an encouraging sign, and more than one defence minister has voiced interest in re-exploring collaborations with the French on aircraft carriers.

The Conservative shadow cabinet supports closer collaboration on capabilities with certain allies, in particular the US and France. Conservatives are less keen on strengthening defence co-operation within the EU. Shadow Secretary of State for defence Liam Fox still toys with the idea of withdrawing Britain from the European Defence Agency, if the Conservatives win the next elections.

It would be unfortunate if a Conservative government withdrew from closer EU defence co-operation. Britain stands to benefit from collaborative efforts under the EDA’s umbrella, not least because it can be used to encourage other European countries to develop some badly needed equipment, including for Afghanistan. In addition, France might be less keen to work bilaterally with the UK on big ticket items, if London undermines EU defence efforts in which Paris has invested much political capital over the last decade.

Britain has dared to ask itself the right questions, now it must explore the answers. The defence review will force the UK to reflect on the role it wants to play in the world and how it develops the means to play that role. The next government should explore all avenues of co-operation, from shared maintenance to pooling assets, and it should explore them with all its allies – be it bilaterally, particularly with France, or through NATO and the EU. Such co-operation might somewhat reduce Britain’s autonomy, but it might be the only option for the UK to remain a global player.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.