Officials scorn British talk of nuclear liaison

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

There may beless than meets to the eye to Franco-British nuclear co- operation.

Officials in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence yesterday said they were unaware of any proposals to substantiate Monday's announce- ment by John Major and President Jacques Chirac of France, which promised greater liaison between France and Britain. In practice, official sources said, both countries were committed to maintaining independent nuclear deterrent forces.

The leaders said there was "considerable convergence between the two countries on nuclear doctrine and policy". Given that Britain and France are the only European nuclear powers with nuclear forces of similar size, and that a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on one would send fall- out drifting over the other, that is hardly surprising. But officials yesterday said the idea of one country relying on the other to deter an attack was out of the question.

"We do not see situations arising in which the vital interests of either France or the UK could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened", the joint statement continued. Asked if that meant France would retaliate if a missile landed in England, or that Britain might retaliate if one landed in France, one source said: "Absolutely not. And the French would answer 'Non' as well."

The Foreign Office also denied Britain and France had agreed that a "low-yield" (small explosion) nuclear strike might be used as a "warning shot" when the vital interests of either were threatened.

There has been some discussion of Britain and France alternating nuclear deterrent submarine patrols, but to do so would undermine the philosophy of an independent deterrent. Neither Britain nor France has said it will develop a successor to their warheads - France's Pacific tests include trials of a new warhead for a submarine-launched missile.

Since Britain abandoned its requirement for a stand-off nuclear missile for the RAF, the prospect of co-operation with France in that area has also disappeared.

The only area where both countries are independently setting up new systems, and where there is scope for co-operation, is in perfecting computer predictions of nuclear explosions, which obviate the need for any future tests.

Some independent experts concluded the statement might be a coded message that Britain would gain long-term benefit from the French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Britain has not denied assisting France with its computer- simulation techniques, and is expected to gain something in return, possibly collaboration in developing new nuclear weapon designs without the need to test them.

Until recently, both Britain and France said they could not sign up to a full Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), due to come into force next year. Then the French agreed to do so, provided they could carry out the current round of tests before the ban came into force.

Patricia Chilton, of Manchester Metropolitan University, who specialises in Franco- British security co-operation, said: "It would have been impossible for the British and French governments to agree to ... CTBT without both of them acquiring the necessary extra information for computer simulation in the meantime."