EU nations will significantly expand the pooling and sharing of their military resources in order to achieve savings at a time when the European debt crisis is biting into national defense budgets, the head of the European Defense Agency said Wednesday.
"If Europeans want to keep a credible defense, member states must cooperate," Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould said.
The 27-nation European Union collectively has the second-largest defense budget in the world, amounting to nearly euro200 billion ($265 billion). But military spending has already shrunk 15 percent in the past decade and is set to plunge further in the next several years.
Making matters worse for European armies, the fragmentation of national military commands and defense industries has made it almost impossible to achieve economies of scale in the procurement of military equipment. As a result, forces from EU nations which have operated in the Middle East, Asia and Africa in the past decade have relied heavily on the United States for logistical, intelligence and other support.
Arnould said that the bloc's defense ministers had approved the defense agency's plans to expand collaboration in at least half-a-dozen areas.
"Everybody recognizes that this is the moment to move forward," she said after a meeting of the union's defense ministers.
The areas include forming joint field hospitals, improving the performance and interoperability of the air tanker fleet, training air crews for both helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft, standardizing the procurement of smart munitions, and developing common intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
European nations taking part in this year's NATO-led bombing of Libya ran out of smart munitions just weeks into the seven-month operation. Their air forces also had to rely on the U.S. military for air transport, air-to-air refueling and targeting intelligence.
Although the EU nations have about 1.6 million men and women under arms, they have been hard-pressed to generate troops and military equipment for overseas missions. In a recent incident, the EU was forced to ask nonmember Serbia to provide a single military doctor for the bloc's training mission in Somalia, because no free doctors could be found in the EU armies.
Officials have pointed to the newly launched European Air Transport Command, saying it could serve as an example of how greater integration in strategic transport can result in savings on maintenance and the training of air crews.
The multinational command, based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, coordinates the air activities of a number of air forces with over 200 transport aircraft. The new Airbus A400M strategic freighter is due to become the backbone of the combined European fleet, with nearly 200 scheduled to enter service in eight EU air forces.
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