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During a scene in director Joe Wrights new Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, the French premier and his assembled generals are visibly irritated by the Prime Ministers overconfidence and perceived ignorance upon hearing of the collapsing French lines. “Well he is English” they concur snidely.

The following article was contributed to the UK Defence Journal by Sam Flint.

Such are Anglo-French relations, imperfect and uneasy, but when the situation has seemed bleakest, we stand together as equals.

This unique relationship, unlike Britain’s deference to the U.S., comes as a result of a shared history. Adversaries for most of it, Britain and France have played a similar role on the edge of Europe, with distinct national characteristics, but a shared belief in democracy and liberty, and great resolve to protect it. This is what brought us together in the 20th century, particularly in the conflict Darkest Hour depicts, World War Two, where our shared faith in democracy was rallied in the attempted, but failed, defence of Europe.

The 21st century of course poses new challenges. A recalcitrant Russia interrupting elections and intimidating its neighbours, a belligerent North Korea, an Iran stuck at the crossroads between integration with the international community and regression into clerical repression, and crucially, a rising red dragon in the East.

China under Xi Jinping is becoming increasingly aggressive and authoritative, recognising its great wealth and strength in Asia. Despite its regional power status, with little infrastructure to project its influence much further, it’s developing navy and cyber warfare techniques make it one of the greatest threats to the world system as we know it. Only last year at the Communist party conference, Xi outlined how China would be the beacon for a new way of governing, challenging the liberal democratic order that was assumed to be the future of all nations after the end of the Cold War in 1991. This is an order that the Communist party does not subscribe to, and with its huge economy and influence, China aims to project its new ideology, at the expense of the West.

With an increasingly isolationist America embroiled in its own domestic issues, presenting a poor case for developing countries to strive toward democracy, what chance do nations like Britain or France have in the face of Chinese power?

Little, unless again we stand together. Britain and France are the military powers of Europe. We have by far and away the best standing armed forces, equipment, and economy to pay for them, and we are both crucially on the UN security council. Such resources when pooled together could pose a genuine force for intervention around the world, not just militarily, but with the power to invest in developing countries and make a case for democracy that the current leader of the free world, President Trump, will find difficult to make.

President Macrons recent visit to the UK promised just that. New joint ventures by the UK and France in Africa to provide investment in developing countries gives us a stake to advocate their movement to liberal systems of government. Prime Minister Theresa May offered French forces in Mali 3 Chinook helicopters in the fight against Islamic terrorists, and in return Mr. Macron has authorized hundreds of French soldiers to reinforce British troops in Estonia, a taskforce under British command, to head off the threat from Russia. This is off the back of rumours of a joint military rapid reaction force that could provide a deterrent to any aggressive postures in Europe.

Recent cuts in military expenditures has seen both the UK and France’s capabilities drop significantly. A mere glance at the Royal Navy demonstrates how savage these cuts have been, with Britain now operating below the safe number of sailors it requires, having to mothball at least 2 ships due to a lack of manpower.

Such stark figures however, prove the need for such an alliance. Pooling our resources, like we have in Mali, is a small step, but one that shows the effectiveness and perhaps even necessity for our armed forces to work together. Until cuts are reversed, it would greatly benefit both nations capabilities.

I must stress that I am not advocating a joint Anglo-French army. That I cannot emphasise enough. It would not be in the interest of either nation to rely on the other for defence. But in the face of mounting threats abroad, and the necessity for a democratic country to take an active role in combating the spread of authoritarian Chinese influence in the developing world, a new Entente Cordiale, as some journalists have put it, would benefit not only Britain and France, but the world.

33 COMMENTS

  1. Well said
    I have been saying this to others for years
    Yes we have our problems not least Brexit but that will be sorted what way or the other (i know what i want)
    Take both navies for instance.If the powers that be had the foresight to put cats on our carriers that would have been brill both could use each others and it would have meant two carries at sea at any one time
    Put together the two would have a fairly potent force
    Decent size airforce and decent size army

    • BREXIT is only a problem if our European “friends”, not least France, insist on making it a problem. I for one am looking forward to being Governed only by those who were elected by the British people (House of Lords aside). Vive la démocratie!

        • I meant to add it was interesting to hear Macron admit that if there was an EU Referendum in France now they would possibly vote ‘Leave’. But like all good EU people he has no intention of allowing them that vote. Pas de démocratie en France. After all they ‘voted awkwardly’ once before over the European Constitution and had to be reminded to ‘vote correctly’ when it had a respray and was called the European Union.

    • Barry – Can I gently point out that the QE programme was actually initiated as a joint UK / France project. (The French called it ‘PA-01’). But as is regularly the case that after French got Thales into the design brief they disappeared when it came to serious money being needed. They did it in the Typhoon programme as well. So we were left with a design that would cater for STOVL or CATOBAR with original cost projections of 3 (minimum) ships being changed for 2 and the consequent cost increases.

      Now I believe the French did some foot shooting here because we have proved the costs and quality of what their CATOBAR ‘PA-01’ could have been and indeed they could well have been fitting her out in St Nazaire right now. But instead? Nothing. We also lost out because had the French stayed in the Typhoon programme we would most certainly have had a bigger production run (Typhoon +_ Rafale numbers), more workshare in the UK, not had to price compete with the Rafale and more importantly we WOULD have had a Naval Typhoon and that might well have altered the design specifications to CATOBAR. It doesn’t answer the conundrum that EMALS was unproven, hugely expensive and possibly needed nuclear power (as the French would have fitted).

      As a footnote I think we will still be delivering an awfully big ‘bang’ with our carriers for not a lot of ‘bucks’. And the French remain repairing the disaster that is the CdeG

    • There is nothing wrong with sustaining a close link with France. We’ve bailed them out in Mali with the heavy lift aircraft and helicooters which they lack.

  2. What is difficult to understand is where precisely does all this fit with the proposed EUF, (or whatever the nomenclature is?) A closer military relationship is only as good as the incumbent president, it is France we are talking about here! Britain has already announced its position in regards to EUF, and how it wants to strengthen its ties with the US whilst retaining membership of NATO. A halfway house agreement with France must pose the MOD with additional headaches, in terms of integration and planning within the NATO component?

  3. Good article and sound logic. We also need a way of ensuring work share agreements for new equipment are kept to, perhaps with a clause that commits the funding irrelevant of whether you take it or not. In that way the legacy of agreeing work shares based upon order volumes you don’t really intend on purchasing (France, Italy and Germany) ensures this behaviour is heavily penalised.

    We also need to look at ourselves in this – Would the RN be worse of with 12 FREMM as opposed to the 6 T45 it ended up with, I think not and it is a missed opportunity in my opinion, as I think is the French decision not to build a QEC or 2, so it does work both ways.

    Taranis/Euron is the next big piece of work we must get right between the 2 countries and I am led to believe the French are already being protectionist and insisting on sub par engines etc.

    We can work together but it needs to be more sensible all round

    • Pacman, I firmly believe the Anglo French UCAV will never be more than a technology Demonstrator program.

      BAE Systems should be throwing their lot in with one of the US manufactures, looking to jointly build and field an operational UCAV post 2030.

      Only with US production numbers, can such highly sophisticated and expensive systems be procured at a reasonable unit cost.

      A dedicated European system will be extremely expensive and no doubt much delayed…

      • John – So why shouldn’t BAE Systems be funded to do their own UCAV (as they are now demonstrating the ‘next generation’ MAGMA aircraft) and then sell those large numbers to the USA and everyone else. And if the US demand production then we charge a big licence fee. And demand full production of F-35s and every other US aircraft we buy

        I really don’t get why people so easily give up our manufacturing jobs at the first hurdle ….

        • That’s ones simple Chris, the US won’t buy anything high end from another country…

          Far from giving up on UK manufacturing, I am convinced the only long term future for BAE Systems (air systems) is close cooperation with the US primarily and also Japan, South Korea and Turkey.

          Western European cooperation in this area is a hiding to nothing, a toxic mix of French intransigence and the Penny pinching Germans…

          • Hi Chris – Whilst I dont necessarily disagree with your logic I actually believe the UCAV is precisely the type of aircraft the UK should be designing and building itself as relative to other craft it is relatively inexpensive (circa £20m each) and we have most of the technology already through the Taranis programme.

            I think this would benefit from a joint Japan / UK collaboration as the Japanese are far better at miniaturisation and productionising patents than we are (historically at least).

            If we could bring in the Tarancis or Magma in around the £20m mark then I see this as a key enabler for the F35 fleet.

            Imagine an F35 in standoff position, controlling and targeting 2-4 Magmas deep into enemy territory: you get 4 times the payload for 50-80% of the price of a single F35. Surely this is something that we should pursue in order to give us quantity as well as quality.

            It may be a bit far fetched – but better than doing nothing whilst we get fewer and fewer high end systems.

            I think we should go for this particular item alone.

  4. i must be one of the few that agree to a united european defence organisation, amalgamation of the R.A.F and the fleet air arm has been on the agenda for many years, me i’m all for a united u.k defence force, like say japan and israel.works for them it could work for us a combined single armed force would be a potent organisation, it would also allow the nation to shed the pointless chair wasting generals, admirals e.t.c the saving might fund a few more tanks, planes and frigates

  5. f the R.A.F and the fleet air arm has been on the agenda for many years, me i’m all for a united u.k defence force, like say japan and israel.works for them it could work for us a combined single armed force would be a potent organisation, it would also allow the nation to shed the pointless chair wasting generals, admirals e.t.c the saving might fund a few more tanks, planes and frigates

    • Andy

      The USMC is now far bigger than the UK’s armed forces and in my opinion far more efficient.

      Yes it doesn’t have all the assets that our forces have – but its airforce is massive in comparison to ours (and I mean massive) and they do all of this on circa 50% of our defence budget, so surely we can do the other stuff (like Navy, CASD and some core airforce tasks) from the other 50%.

      The ADF,JDF, USMC and IDF are all great examples of single force structure and I am all for it.

      For me we should have a 7 Division force with each division having everything it needs for its tasking and command area: 2 of these divisions would be the carrier battle groups (c. 22.5k personnel) , 1 would be a larger HQ division (45k) and 4 would be what we will call the main combat roles (inc fully aligned naval, air and cyber units) of circa 36k personnel.

      The carrier groups are one on one off and the 4 combat divisions rotate their 4 brigades through whatever standing tasks they are responsible for with 1 on task, 1 on high readiness/training, 1 coming off task and 1 on R&R. This is then a sustainable cycle.

      I know many on this forum do not like this idea – but for me 16 Brigades totalling 64 deployable combat battalions of 900 soldiers is a good sized force for the UK with a brigade having 4 of these + 1 support brigade.

      The 4 combat divisions would each have 4 combat brigades +1 support brigade +air, cyber, SFG,CnC and naval adding 3 further Brigades of personnel and equipment.

      All supported by HQ Div with 10 Brigades (a Brigade in this org structure is 5 combat Battalions of 900 totalling 4500 personnel)

      This for me streamlines the whole military and makes it far more sustainable whilst installing inter brigade rivalry to push our troops to excellence.

  6. I cannot help but feel that there is more than a little wishful thinking in this article and in many of the comments listed above. The French armed forces are in fact in a parlous state with gaping capability gaps as well as chronic under investment in terms of investment and modernisation of their current equipment. In fact General de Villiers until recently the head of the French Army said that he could not guarantee the defence of the homeland. At which point he was effectively told to shut up by Macron ‘I am your boss’, who went on to introduce a 850 million Euro defence cut. Which in turn lead to Gen de Villiers very public resignation – something no British Gen has contemplated during all the UK defence cuts. Also lets remember that France has a defence budget of 1.6 % of GDP well below the NATO commitment and a political establishment that thinks the primary of the French military is to look impressive whilst parading through Paris each summer. That and maintaining the Francophone empire in Africa – in the round world how does that help us??

  7. I think the greatest cooperation should be maritime. The role, securing the northern flank. One carrier always available to deter any move over the top of Scandinavia, or fight it if it came.

    • I have long argued that the UK should be a Quick reaction force and our European colleagues should concentrate on the heavy armour formations as their landscape is more amenable to Heavy Armour than the UK.

      If we accept that our forces will be deployed from the UK then it makes sense that we have a large navy and airforce and a light/medium land force.

      I would prefer a larger force of apache helicopters to a new force of Tanks, but know I am in a minority here. Its just that a tank is relatively easier to build if we needed to and we really do heavily use our helicopters – so makes sense.

      So I agree with the fact we should concentrate on the Northern flank and in providing an expeditionary divisional (20-30k strong) force that we can send at short notice to Europe if required.

      • I would agree with the general thrust of your argument Pacman.

        To add to this….

        I would like to see 8 more A400’s and 4 additional C17’s ( begged or borrowed from our dear old Uncle Sam). The US Airforce was forced to buy more C17’s than they wanted, I don’t think they would have an issue selling us a few second hand examples on the cheap.

        Along with the 14 C130’s, this would give us a very capable rapid reaction enabling force.

        I don’t agree that a “truly capable” UCAS will be cheap.
        We are talking a system able to penetrate hostile airspace, requiring Stealth, able to carry a significant warload internally.
        Good range and loitering, all backed up with a very complex integrated avionics and targeting fit and artificial intelligence capable of Semi or fully autonomous missions, or swarming ….
        Make no mistake, the above UCAS is an extremely expensive and technically very taxing undertaking.

        BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin (along with Japan) should start work on such a system sooner rather than later.
        Development would lean heavily on F35 technology as a starting point and the two companies already have an excellent close working relationship.

        • We are actually a world leader in this space with our Taranis aircraft and in comparison to an F35 it is cheap.

          I do think we have the engines, the manufacturing capability and the skills in the UK to make this work but maybe partnering with Japan would be a good idea.

          I also think this is the way to release the value of the F35 which should be able to control a group of these flying alongside it, carrying payload.

          Its an idea of mine that we are well placed and should invest in this now – so we can sell it to all those countries buying UCAS and F35’s.

          • I regard Taranis as an excellent prerequisite UCAV, its a British technology demonstrator that we should all be proud of …. But its a long way from the highly sophisticated operational system needed post 2030.

            What it really buys us is membership of an exclusive club of companies (and countries) who can collaboratively build a very capable system, in the numbers that make it affordable.

            If we try and build an operational system with France (and please god not Germany), then we will have a system that arrives late and probably costing double (or more) the unit cost than any competing US let design, with little subsequent chance of export … For the RAF, that will translate into a very small, very expensive force.

  8. We used to talk about all this in the NAAFI years ago,some General even wrote a book,Third world war, all fiction of course,much like today.

      • There’s a follow up to it as well, corrected with up to date info “The Untold Story”. I have a copy got last year but not had time to read it yet. The first was a very good read, perhaps essential. He wasn’t just some some general of course, he had “command of the British Army of the Rhine and the parallel command of NATO’s Northern Army Group”.

  9. Entente Cordiale is a neccessary step for two countries facing defence cuts. Start with that and improve on it, then add Spain and perhaps Germany later on in terms of the Baltic. That can be parallel to NATO, and indeed to PESCO.

  10. Entente Cordiale … Well the proof of this is yet to be tested.
    The French really do lack absolutely key equipment ( heavy lift Fixed wing/helos). This has been a serious handicap in their African operations.

    Lucky, we stepped in to help. The acid test will come if the UK or France get into a shooting war that doesn’t meet with the others national interest and ask for assistance.

    Anglo French Mutual military support is an important piece of the security puzzle moving forward for us both, we will have to see what happens when this relationship is seriously tested!

    For one, I really hope it all works out…

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