Why Brize Norton was more useful than any EU security meeting.

At the end of the EU Security Summit in Brussels on 19 December, the European Council announced that it “welcomes the development of remotely piloted aircraft systems in the 2020–2025 timeframe”. If that seems not-too-ambitious, the Council also called for a number of studies, “capability development plans,” and joint resolutions of policy. I admit that much of this work is important, but it does not cut steel or write code.

In contrast, at the end of the Anglo-French defense summit at RAF Brize Norton on 31 January, Prime Minister Cameron and President Hollande announced tangibly more:

  • a two-year, £120 million joint feasibility study for a ‘future combat air system’
  • an exchange of RAF and Armée de l’Air aircrews and engineers so that the British can gain experience on French A400Ms, and the French on British A330 MRTTs
  • a memo on joint orders for a future helicopter-launched, anti-ship guided weapon (the ‘FASGW’)
  •  a £10 million contract for developing robotic submersibles for finding and neutralizing seabed mines
  • a joint investment in the British Atomic Weapons Establishment for mutual research and testing
  • some less-specified cooperation between the two armies in equipment capability and interoperability 

Several of these initiatives had been previously announced, but the detail of the set underscores the utility of what one British official deemed, near the hundredth anniversary of the countries’ enduring alliance, the entente très cordiale.

In light of the difference in results, it now seems odd how Mr. Hollande asserted, in a speech last May at the École de Guerre, that “industrial alliances must be agreed upon on a European scale.” His speech ironically came not too long after the collapse of the merger plan between EADS and BAE Systems. France has long wanted to play at the level of the Americans, but with French equipment, and yet lacks the money for large production runs. Rebuffed by the Germans in his quest for continental solidarité, the president resorted to what seemed the second-best solution: closer bilateral ties with Britain. Yet more ironically, Hollande has likely backed into a better deal. For while European defense-industrial integration, led by France or otherwise, has been a long-standing European ambition, it just hasn’t worked well, and for over half a century.

Marc De Vore of MIT wrote as much in his excellent articleThe Arms Collaboration Dilemma: Between Principal-Agent Dynamics and Collective Action Problems”— in the 4th quarter 2011 issue of Security Studies. As I recounted elsewhere last May, De Vore observes that pan-European programs began replacing binational programs starting around 1968, as defense ministries’ equipment preferences began favoring bigger and more complicated systems. Just consider the difference between the Alpha Jet and the Transall on the one hand, and the Typhoon and the A400M on the other. More customers were needed to foot the big bills for longer and more complicated development programs. But past research on multinational collaboration generally shows that programs run that way don’t perform remarkably well in cost or schedule.

Bilateral programs, on the other hand, may not have the scale needed for a Joint Strike Fighter, but they more often produce valuable products closer to budget and schedule. Whether they sign on at the beginning (as with the Franco-Italian FREMM frigate) or halfway through development (as with the Swedish-Norwegian Archer mobile cannon), one extra customer is easier to manage than a dozen. In the unique dyadic pair of Britain and France, common views on issues from the importance of global policing to the enduring value of nuclear weapons facilitate cooperation. But as the starkly different results of these two meetings remind us, the managerial lesson generalizes: bilateral products are better than multilateral hopes.

Related Experts: James Hasik