LONDON — Britain and France struck a historic defense deal Tuesday aimed at preserving military muscle in an age of austerity, pledging to deploy troops under a single command, share aircraft carriers and collaborate on once fiercely guarded nuclear programs.
Following talks in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Europe's only nuclear-armed powers had set out plans to work closely for the next 50 years — forming a joint rapid reaction force, sharing warhead testing facilities and tackling together the threats from cyber warfare and the militarization of space.
Cameron told his Cabinet the deal would save hundreds of millions of pounds as Britain seeks to clear its national debts, while Sarkozy said he believed the pact will help protect all of Europe.
"This is a decision which is unprecedented and it shows a level of trust and confidence between our two nations that is unequaled in history," Sarkozy told reporters.
Though British and French forces have fought together on fronts across the globe — including during both World Wars and the enemy occupations of France — the leaders insist the accord will signal the closest integration ever of their armed forces.
Under the deal, Britain and France will form a joint expeditionary force — a pool of at least 5,000 troops, including special forces, able to deploy under a commander from either nation.
They will in the future share their two aircraft carriers, when Britain's new vessel comes into service in about a decade. Fighter jets will be able to land on carriers from either country, providing cover when one nation has its carrier in dock for maintenance.
To slash the hefty costs of maintaining their nuclear weapons, the nations will share specialist laboratories at the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, southern England, and a new center at Valduc, southeast of Paris.
"The result will make our citizens safer, more secure and better protected in the global age of uncertainty in which we now live," Cameron said.
Last month, Britain announced an 8 percent cut to its annual $59 billion defense budget over four years and confirmed that 17,000 troops, a fleet of jets and an aging aircraft carrier would all be lost to cuts.
France will hold defense spending at about $42.4 billion next year but must also tackle a troublesome national debt.
Skeptics say the pact has little to do with newfound friendship but is simply a practical response to budget cuts.