Britain and France to share carrier programme

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Britain and France moved closer towards a co-operation agreement on the building of three aircraft carriers yesterday, after France agreed to pay up to £100m in phase payments towards the design of the ships.

"We have today reached agreement on how we will proceed on co-operation on the aircraft carriers," said a joint statement from the Secretary of State for Defence John Reid and his French counterpart Michele Alliot-Marie. The details of the deal are yet to be hammered out but the two sides are believed to have agreed on arrangements for the management of the project over the next 12 months.

The defence group Thales, which helped design the carriers and will feature in the building of both the British and French ships, applauded the deal yesterday. Alex Dorrian, the chief executive of Thales UK, said: "This is great news for all parties and is a sensible step for European defence industrial co-operation."

Britain aims to have the first of two new aircraft carriers delivered to the Royal Navy some time around 2012, while France wants its new ship ready by 2014. The co-operation between the two countries was decided upon by Tony Blair and the French president Jacques Chirac in November 2003.

The French and UK ships will be about 80 per cent the same, so there is plenty of scope for cost savings by the two European states co-operating.