Britain and France may share nuclear deterrent

Joint submarine patrols were rejected by Brown before the election, but they are now seen as an answer to defence cuts

The possibility of a "shared" UK-French nuclear deterrent is set to be on the agenda of a summit between David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy in London this autumn.

A politically explosive proposal for joint Franco-British nuclear-submarine patrols – an idea sunk without trace in the recent past – has been brought back to the surface by the draconian defence cuts in both countries.

Although talks are still at a preliminary stage, officials in Paris say that the idea is one possibility for cost-saving military co-operation which is likely to be discussed by the Prime Minister and the President at the annual Franco-British summit in London in early November.

A senior British defence official acknowledged last night that the possibility of sharing nuclear deterrence capability with the French remains on the table, adding that a "number of options are being studied".

The official, who has advised the Government on nuclear policy, pointed out that although the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has vowed the UK will keep its independent nuclear deterrent, the £20bn cost of replacing Trident meant that "one had to adjust one's sights".

The insistence of Chancellor George Osborne that the money would have to come from the defence budget rather than the Treasury has made looking at cheaper options even more imperative.

The idea of joint submarine patrols has been discussed before – most recently in March – when it was floated by President Sarkozy but rejected by Gordon Brown. The change of government in the UK, and the sheer scale of the threatened defence cuts, have revived the discussions but French and British officials warn that technical and political obstacles have not yet been overcome.

The proposition is simple – if politically fraught. France and Britain each have four nuclear-armed submarines. Each has at least one submarine permanently on patrol, ready to respond to a nuclear attack on its home country. If the two countries pooled their fleets, there could be occasions when only one submarine – either British or French – would be stationed at the bottom of the ocean ready to retaliate against an attack on either country.

This would reduce the number of submarines that each country has to maintain in order to preserve a "credible" nuclear deterrent. It would also help to solve a huge political problem for the Coalition Government by reducing the cost of replacing the existing Trident submarines some time after 2015.

Sharing with the French is still "just a discussion point" but could help to address that problem, the defence official said.

The idea is believed to have been discussed by Mr Brown and Mr Sarkozy in March this year and ultimately sunk by Mr Brown as politically unfeasible in an election year. Similar discussions on Anglo-French nuclear co-operation are believed to have occurred in the past, going back to the Edward Heath government in the early 1970s.

Officials in Paris say that new impetus has been given to the idea by the huge budget deficits, and swingeing defence spending cuts, faced by both nations. Other ideas for military "pooling" said to be under discussion before the Franco-British summit include a revised version of a recently rejected proposal for a "shared" use of aircraft carriers and a joint programme for building a new generation of frigates.

Discussions in the past have been hampered by mutual suspicion and fear of negative domestic political and media reactions. The French did not like America's control over the supposedly independent UK nuclear deterrent. Britain suspected France of wanting to create a European defence policy to undermine Nato. These doubts have now been eased, on both sides of the Channel (and the Atlantic), by President Sarkozy's decision to return France to the joint military command of the Atlantic alliance. Politically, however, it is accepted that the idea might still be difficult to swallow in both countries.

Could France be relied upon to retaliate against an attack on the UK, if that might then mean nuclear retaliation against France? And vice versa.

Officials draw attention, however, to an interesting but little-reported comment by President Sarkozy in a speech in Cherbourg in March 2008, just after talks with Mr Brown. "Together with the United Kingdom," he said, "we have taken a major decision: it is our assessment that there can be no situation in which the vital interests of either of our two nations could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened."

The possibility of Franco-British nuclear co-operation has been a buzz subject for several weeks in defence think-tanks in both countries. Experts accept that (even though it is more than 200 years since France and Britain fought each other) the old suspicions and rivalries remain.

But they also point out that, in practical terms, a nuclear attack on Britain by a foreign aggressor would also be an attack on France (and vice versa). If British cities were devastated by a nuclear attack, most of northern France would be rendered uninhabitable.

Like Britain's four-string Trident submarine fleet based in western Scotland, France's nuclear deterrent or Force de Frappe consists of four submarines, each armed with 16 missiles. The fleet, currently reduced to three with a new submarine under construction, is based at L'Ile Longue, opposite the port of Brest in Brittany.

* Labour is set to fight the next general election on a pledge to halt the proposed £20bn Trident upgrade. Ed Miliband said yesterday that he wanted Britain to retain an independent nuclear deterrent but questioned the need for the like-for-like replacement supported by the Conservative Party.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada