Britain and France aim for joint air arm

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IN A MODERN development of the Entente Cordiale, Britain and France are planning to set up a joint military air command to provide support for international peace-keeping and humanitarian operations - one of a number of plans that seeks to combine European military forces in a 'European Defence Identity'.

The Entente in 1904 was an informal agreement and its implementation caused friction between the British and French during the First World War. The new proposal is the first at operational level between the two countries in peacetime.

The new command arrangements should eradicate duplication of effort, diplomatic and military sources said yesterday. The project, a French initiative which has been under discussion for several months, is to be announced at the annual Franco-British summit in Chartres near Paris on 18 November.

There will be a joint planning cell, able to draw on British and French aircraft to provide transport and air support for international relief and peace-keeping operations.

The idea that France and Britain might share the burden of nuclear deterrence by organising joint ballistic-missile submarine patrols has also been discussed. Drawing on the resources of the two air forces could be the responsibility of a cell in Nato's recently established Headquarters Air North-West, at High Wycombe.

The plan evolved out of experience gained in the Gulf war, the operation to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq, and in Bosnia. The British found that they were able to co-operate very easily with the French in areas such as in- flight refuelling and transport.

No area of co-operation is ruled out, sources said, with combat aircraft, transport, helicopters, communications and the establishment and protection of air bases all under consideration.

The fact that Britain is part of Nato's military structure, and France is not, has created some difficulties. But they have been overcome.

'We do see a way forward on these lines,' a British Ministry of Defence spokesman said yesterday. 'There would be no dedicated staff. It would just be between the air forces.'

Rather than them offering 20 Jaguars and us doing the same, we'd offer 20 between us.'

Some sources say London sees the move as a way of drawing to draw France back into Nato while Paris sees views it as a way means of drawing Britain into a future European force. Others believe say it is a pragmatic move to make the most of increasingly scarce resources.