New French security strategy calls for international co-operation

London
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A new defence and homeland security strategy announced by French president Nicolas Sarkozy last week raised the prospect of increased outsourcing and international co-operation in military procurement and a break from the tradition of independence that saw France withdraw from the Eurofighter programme.

Sarkozy's plan calls for a smaller, more mobile army that would play a greater role in national security. For the period 2009 to 2020, a military budget of €377 billion ($578 billion) would include €200 billion ($307 billion) for equipment including surveillance satellites and unmanned air vehicles.

In sourcing such equipment, France intends to pursue co-operation deals, in marked contrast to its stance on the Eurofighter. There, unwilling to share leadership with BAE Systems, France backed Dassault Aviation's all-French Rafale combat jet, which has struggled to sell internationally.

France's rethink is seen by defence industry sources as a bid to remove redundancy and duplication from its industrial base. "They cannot maintain their broad base of skills," says one consultant. "They're going to have to make the hard decision that the UK made: what do we want to be world class in, and what are we prepared to procure overseas for?"

A leader in space and surveillance capabilities, France is reckoned to be desperately short of tanker aircraft, tactical transport helicopters and tactical transport aircraft (due to delays in the Airbus Military A400M project).

However, collaborative projects will founder if the country continues to insist on project leadership, say sources. Although Dassault Aviation is leading the European team developing the Neuron unmanned combat air vehicle demonstrator, budget constraints will likely limit France to minority stakes in future projects.

Sarkozy's plan to renew relations with the USA, via NATO, is considered unlikely to filter down to military procurement in the short term, given the recent history of rocky Franco-American diplomatic relations.

Plans to increase European cooperation in ballistic missile defence likewise face an obstacle: the UK favours a naval-based solution over France's land-based SAMP/T air defence system.

In any case, experts believe changes to France's military-industrial culture will only come slowly as Sarkozy struggles to sell a plan that requires 54,000 defence job cuts.