London – Keep the French “in the dark” and raise “three cheers!” to our American allies emerge as recurrent themes in top secret documents debating how to secure advanced military technology during the 1980s.
Files released to the National Archives in Kew on Friday show how UK ministers favored the U.S. shuttle launch system for military satellites over Ariane rockets.
A 1983 memo from the Ministry of Defense to the prime minister warns there is “French pressure on us to be ‘European’ and go for Ariane.”
Margaret Thatcher agreed that it was better to go with the American shuttle, which was cheaper and had a better safety record.
The MoD wanted to send two Skynet 4 military satellites, manufactured by BAE and Marconi, into orbit to provide communications across Europe and the Atlantic.
The shuttle launch was priced at £58m – £23m cheaper than Ariane.
“We currently rely on American cover for the command and control of all our naval forces outside the UK, including submarines and surface task groups and our forces in Falklands, Lebanon and Berlin,” the letter, highlighting the UK’s reliance on U.S. goodwill, informed the prime minister.
In this context, French Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy wrote to Thatcher pleading for the decision to be reconsidered and offered to reduce the cost.
The issue, prefiguring the Westland helicopter affair, escalated into a diplomatic row over the UK’s international priorities.
Geoffrey Howe, the foreign secretary, wrote to Thatcher in December 1983 advising caution.
“If we opt for the shuttle,” he said, “we must expect the French to make a fuss.
“Indeed, in the wake of the European Community Athens summit, they may be looking for an issue to illustrate an alleged lack of European commitment by the UK and may therefore choose to make even more of an adverse Skynet decision than would otherwise have been the case.”
“There is therefore a case for keeping the French in the dark for a time about a decision to go for shuttle in an attempt to distance it from post-Athens discord.”
Eventually the French were told the U.S. bid had been chosen.
When the next military satellite launch in 1986, however, Ariane was favored.
After the Challenger shuttle disaster, a No 10 memo stated there “is no other option but to use Ariane.”