By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European states will take a step towards plugging a gap in their defenses on Monday by agreeing to work together to boost their air-to-air refueling capacity, a major European shortcoming in last year's Libyan war.
A group of European Union countries will sign a "letter of intent" at an EU defense ministers' meeting in Brussels to work together to expand their aerial refueling abilities from 2020, EU officials said.
About half a dozen EU governments have indicated they will sign the agreement, one official said. He did not name them, but the Netherlands, France and Germany have been strong supporters of expanding Europe's air-to-air refueling capacity.
Europe has had a shortage of tanker aircraft for years and has been slow to do anything about it.
Its deficiencies were exposed during last year's Libya campaign when European states relied heavily on the United States for air-to-air refueling, which is vital to enable fighter planes to stay in the air for longer, as well as for intelligence and surveillance.
Under the agreement, one of many cooperative projects to be discussed on Monday, European governments propose to tackle the problem either by buying new tanker aircraft, leasing them or paying to borrow another country's tankers when not in use.
As a shorter term measure, the European Defence Agency (EDA), the EU's defense cooperation arm, is encouraging European states to acquire more refueling pods, made by British defense group Cobham, an EU official said.
These pods, that can be fitted to planes such as the Airbus A400M transporter, could be shared between European countries.
The refueling project is an example of the stepped-up military cooperation being forced on European states partly by the financial crisis that has led to sharp cuts in defense spending as governments tighten their belts.
With the cost of sophisticated weaponry rising and states' ability to pay falling, cooperation is a cost-effective way for European governments to acquire essential military equipment and one that NATO is promoting too.
Claude-France Arnould, the EDA's chief executive, said she had "no doubt" European governments were growing more convinced of the need to work together on defense, known in EU jargon as "pooling and sharing".
She dismissed fears, held by British eurosceptics, that greater defense integration was a step towards a European army.
"I am not sure that it (a European army) is still a relevant concept. It is a step towards inter-operability, when needed, where needed," she told Reuters in an interview.
Ministers at Monday's meeting of EDA member governments, which include all EU states except Denmark, will also be asked to approve a code of conduct aimed at making multinational, cooperative defense projects governments' preferred option, ahead of purely national ones.
The United States, which has long complained Europe is not doing enough to defend itself and relies too heavily on U.S. military might, pressed Europeans to lead the Libya campaign.
That, coupled with the new U.S. strategic shift to Asia, are pointers that Europe needs to be more self-reliant for defense in future, putting a premium on cooperation.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)