By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ten European countries agreed on Monday to work together to boost their military air-to-air refueling capacity, to plug a gap in their defenses that was exposed by last year's Libyan war.
Europe's air forces have had a shortage of tanker aircraft for years. During the Libya campaign, European states relied heavily on the United States for air-to-air refueling, needed to enable fighter planes to stay in the air for longer.
Under a "letter of intent" signed at a defense ministers' meeting in Brussels in Monday, 10 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.
The aim is to increase Europe's strategic tanker capability by 2020. The governments did not select a particular type of tanker that they would buy.
The agreement was signed by Belgium, France, Greece, Spain, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Norway, which is not a European Union member but works with the European Defence Agency (EDA), the EU's defence arm.
The refueling project is an example of the increased military cooperation being forced on European states by the financial crisis that has led to sharp cuts in defence spending.
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.
Cooperation can include working together on developing weapons, joint exercises or sharing equipment.
EDA members adopted a code of conduct on Monday aimed at making multinational cooperation a central plank of their defence planning. Under the code, defence ministers agreed to try to shield multinational projects from spending cuts.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)