updated 6/21/2007 6:47:58 PM ET 2007-06-21T22:47:58

Britain and the United States signed an agreement Thursday to cut red tape on arms deals and improve the compatibility of military equipment, Prime Minister Tony Blair and defense officials said.

Blair and President Bush authorized a Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty to allow their armed forces to share technology, information and expertise more easily, a Downing Street statement said.

“Achieving this agreement has become more important than ever before,” Blair said in a statement.

Defense officials said Britain has faced delays of up to three months when buying U.S. produced military equipment, because of the need for export licenses to be authorized.

That requirement will be dropped under the deal, a defense ministry spokeswoman said, speeding the passage of equipment — such as U.S. made UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) — to British troops in Afghanistan.

“At a time when British and American forces continue to work closely in defense and security operations around the world, both governments believe we must continue enhancing our ability to cooperate together,” Blair said.

Joint operations between U.S. and British forces have been marred by “friendly fire” deaths caused by the failure of equipment and personnel in correctly identifying personnel.

After an inquest into the death of British soldier Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, 25, killed in a friendly fire attack by two American pilots in Iraq in 2003, opposition legislators called for improvements in joint identification systems.

Britain last year threatened to end cooperation with the U.S. on the new Joint Strike Fighter jet after 10 years of development, until the Pentagon resolved concerns it was not sharing enough information about the aircraft’s sensitive software with London.

“This is a real breakthrough,” said Lord Paul Drayson, minister for defense equipment. “This very positive development in U.K. and U.S. cooperation builds on the progress we made on the” jet program.

The deal will allow military leaders to scrap “current barriers to communication and collaboration between, and among, our armed forces,” the Downing Street statement said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Thursday that the deal “allows the sharing of defense contractor personnel and defense technology between the U.S. and U.K. It foregoes the licensing process that has been in place.”

McCormack said the Bush administration was working with U.S. lawmakers to get the treaty ratified.

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