The French government is to acquire a majority share in the manufacture of vital equipment for Britain's "independent" nuclear deterrent in a new deal struck by French, British and Australian defence contractors. Although the arrangement is a purely commercial one, it gives new impetus to Franco-British co-operation on nuclear strategy, which could develop into a future European nuclear force.
A new company called Thomson Marconi Sonar (TMS), with 3,500 employees in Britain, France and Australia, will be the second largest supplier of sonar equipment in the world. The new company will be based in France and the French government-owned firm of Thomson-CSF will own 50.1 per cent of the shares. The British firm GEC-Marconi will own the rest.
The new company will supply all the sonar equipment for the British and French submarine fleets - including the 16,000-tonne British Vanguard class submarines which carry United States-built Trident missiles. Two of the submarines are already in service. Two more will become operational in 1997 and 1999. New sonar equipment added to vessels will be provided by TMS.
The deal also means that Britain will have an almost identical share in the sonar of the new French Triomphant class ballistic missile-firing submarines, the first of which enters service later this year.
Denis Ranque, who will head the new company, said: "The acoustic signature of the submarines is a very sensitive matter to the French and British governments but we have satisfied them we can maintain the necessary secrecy."
Discussions on Franco-British co-operation in nuclear strategy have in the past focused on agreed patrol areas, and technical collaboration on future torpedo-firing submarines. The new company has made that cooperation a reality.