By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states should work together in four areas of defense technology, including developing drones, the bloc's foreign policy chief said in a report on Tuesday.
In a report commissioned ahead of an EU summit in December, Catherine Ashton said European governments should commit to cooperative projects in drones, a new satellite communications system, cyber defense and plugging a shortfall in air tankers.
Though primarily a civilian organization, the EU plays a growing military and security role, ranging from an anti-piracy naval force off Somalia to training the army in Mali, and the December summit aims to strengthen that role.
Weaknesses in areas such as air-to-air refueling planes and surveillance drones were shown up during NATO's bombing campaign of Libya in 2011.
Ashton's report said drones would be increasingly important for both military and civilian uses such as border control and agriculture. The report said there was an urgent need to prepare a program for the next generation of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones.
Three European aerospace companies called on Europe in June to launch its own independent drone program to reduce reliance on foreign-made equipment.
France's Dassault Aviation, EADS Cassidian and Italy's Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi said they were ready to work together on a MALE drone program.
For now, the EU is not contemplating launching an ambitious pan-European drone program. But officials say the EU could fund the development of technologies useful in future drones and agree on rules for using drones in civilian airspace.
"We could start with a joint investment program in research," one EU official said.
On air-to-air refueling, Ashton's report said one goal for EU governments could be "the multinational acquisition of multi-role tanker/transport aircraft."
Ten European countries agreed in November last year to work together to boost their military air-to-air refueling capacity either by buying new tanker aircraft, leasing them or paying to borrow another country's tankers when not in use.
Ashton called for a European satellite communications system that could be used for both military and civilian purposes, to replace member states' existing military satellites whose operational life is due to end by 2025.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)