European Union defense ministers endorsed on Thursday projects to develop joint air-to-air refueling capacities and field hospitals as part of a wider effort to share military resources in response to falling defense budgets.
The ministers also discussed the implications of a U.S decision to refocus its strategy on regions other than Europe.
Claude-France Arnould, who heads the EU's European Defense Agency, said that in addition to approving the joint field hospitals and the air-to-air refueling initiative _ which aims at increasing strategic tanker capacity and achieving greater cost-effectiveness by 2020 _ ministers considered other ways to promote savings.
The areas discussed included joint pilot training, naval logistics, maritime patrols, maintenance, and shared infrastructure, she said.
"A major impulse has been given," Arnould said, adding that the ministers had agreed on the need to develop a defense capability collectively.
The EU's 27 governments still spend about (EURO)200 billion ($265 billion) on defense annually _ only the United States spends more. But the fragmentation of military commands and defense industries has made it almost impossible to achieve economies of scale in purchasing military equipment.
Military spending, which has already shrunk 15 percent in the past decade, is set to plunge further as part of the austerity measures implemented by many European governments to cope with the continent's debt crisis.
"Pooling and sharing means to generate more defense for the same money." Arnould said. "The clock is clearly ticking, we cannot loose this momentum."
Complicating matters further for Europe's defense planners, the administration of President Barack Obama has announced a new military strategy that includes a shift away from the Cold War-era focus on Europe. Instead, U.S. military capabilities will in the future concentrate on Asian security risks such as China and North Korea, and build on partnerships in the Middle East to keep an eye on Iran.
The European Defense Agency also is working on a number of programs to address deficiencies identified during the war in Libya, including standardizing the procurement of smart munitions, and developing common intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities.
Arnould said the EU has been cooperating closely with NATO on plans to maintain military capabilities, despite the cuts in defense spending. The military alliance, whose headquarters are located just a few miles (kilometers) from the EU, has a similar program, known as Smart Defense.
In some cases, such as air-to-air refueling, member nations prefer to work through the EU. But in others, such as sharing maritime patrol aircraft, it is done through NATO, she said.
"We make sure that the activities done in both organizations are absolutely complementary" Arnould said.
The ministerial meeting also reviewed current EU operations, including the naval mission off Somalia, the military training program for Somalia's nascent army, and the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.
Participants said a priority is to extend the anti-piracy mission off Somalia, launched in 2008, because of its success in suppressing pirate attacks. The EU flotilla consists of 5-10 warships, and includes non-EU countries such as Norway, Croatia, Montenegro and Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who also attended the EU meeting, said the military alliance would probably continue its separate anti-piracy mission, known as Ocean Shield.
"Obviously it's essential to coordinate closely between the EU operation and the NATO operation," he said. "In that respect, it's essential to assist countries in the region in capacity-building to deal with counter-piracy themselves."
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich