THE UK MINISTRY OF Defence (MoD) is dismissing French Government demands for a link between a major industrial merger and a £1 billion missile deal for the Royal Air Force.

French Government officials want to see the UK MoD make a commitment to buying the Matra Apache standoff missile as the launch order for a merged Matra/British Aerospace Dynamics missile company.

The UK MoD says that, as far as Staff Requirement (Air) 1236 for a conventional standoff missile is concerned, "...there is no question of us directing business".

Roger Freeman, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, is understood to have made the UK's position abundantly clear to his French counterparts during a visit to Paris in April.

The disagreement illustrates the continuing gulf between French and UK procurement policy.

Senior UK MoD sources indicate that there is growing impatience within Whitehall over French "posturing" on procurement issues. They claim that, while constantly advocating European unity, France is too often merely promoting French products.

In a clear reference to SR(A) 1236 and also, to the UK's attack-helicopter programme, French Ministry of Defence procurement chief Henri Conze says, that the UK choices "will have an important impact on the development of a European armaments identity".

European countries must agree that maintenance of a high-technology industrial base is a priority, says Conze in an interview with French financial newspaper Les Echos. "It is even more important than European political ambitions," he adds.

The Netherlands decision to purchase the McDonnell Douglas AH-64D attack helicopter, rather than the Eurocopter Tiger, " a major setback for Europe", says Conze.

He claims the decision proves that, if there is no agreement on the need for a common European industrial base, "...we'll be looking at a Europe without a defence capability".

British Aerospace will not comment on the French demands for linkage, beyond saying that its negotiations with Matra are continuing. Privately, sources admit that the situation has not helped in concluding the deal.

Conze also throws cold water on the idea of a centralised European defence agency, which was contained in the European Union Maastricht Treaty accords. Failure to adopt a common approach to arms development would see such an agency become little more than a central purchasing house "...and Paris does not want that", he says.

Source: Flight International