Monday, August 22, 2005

Another nail in the coffin

As you read, ten thousand Chinese and Russian troops are currently attacking the Shantung Peninsula in Northeast Asia by air and by sea. Fortunately, they are not at war but conducting joint military exercises.

Nevertheless, these exercises are of considerable concern, as they are according to the Korea Times and many other sources, a precursor to the parties gearing up for greater military co-operation. From this, Russia – already China’s biggest arms supplier – hopes to increase its sales of high-tech weaponry to the Chinese government.

In the high-tech weapons stakes, however, one of the hottest numbers is the unmanned combat aircraft, known as the UCAV or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. The next generation of these aircraft will probably replace the strike aircraft on most developed nations’ inventories and the RAF fully expects the Tornado GR4s to be thus replaced when the fleet in retired in 2018.

Until recently, the British government was working closely with the US on developing replacements, in £10bn project called the "Future Offensive Air System" (FOAS). But, last June, without warning, the British government pulled out of the project, even though the "definition phase" was not due for completion until 2008. Sources are suggesting that the reason was the increasing reluctance of its US partner to transfer military technology. The MoD was unlikely to "get what it wants".

Meanwhile, working up to making its European Rapid Reaction Force operational by 2010, the EU has designated France, under the European Capabilities Action Plan the lead nation for the development of a European UCAV. With the participation from Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, it also has commenced a programme called "Neuron", which has been allocated €300 million by the French government for the first phase.

The British are not, as yet, part of this programme, but with it pulling out of FOAS, there are strong rumours that it is considering joining.

That much illustrates yet again the increasing detachment of the UK from the US, and its realignment with Europe, a development which has been much chronicled on the Blog. And bad enough though this is, the situation has taken a sinister turn for the worse.

Tucked into a story on Russian aerospace in this week's edition of The Business is a short mention that Airbus Industries has signed a "secret agreement" with the Russian fighter builder MiG. Analysts, says the paper, "believe the companies will develop unmanned combat planes".

Now this is serious. Airbus, better known for its airliners, is 80 percent owned by the European aerospace company EADS, and 20 percent owned by BAE Systems – and heavily subsidised by British and other European governments. Effectively, Britain is engaged with a major European company, of which France is a major partner, in a collaborative project with the Russians, in developing high-tech UCAVs.

Now join all the dots. The EU countries have tried and failed to lift the arms sales embargo on China, but are still very anxious to sell arms to China. On the other hand, Russia is, as we have indicated, the major supplier of arms to China, unhampered by any embargo. What better way for the European to circumvent the embargo than to do deals with the Russians who in turn sell the arms on to China? Given that this deal has probably been in the offing for some time, no wonder the Americans would not give the MoD "what it wants".

Either way, for Britain to be so closely involved with the French as partners in selling technology to the Russians, on highly sensitive projects like UCAVs, is not exactly the best way to impress the United States with our credentials as allies. Yet again, we are seeing another nail in the coffin of the "special relationship".

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