EU states to plug air gap revealed by Libyan war

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European states will take a step towards plugging a gap in their defences today by agreeing to work together to boost their air-to-air refuelling 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 defence ministers’ meeting in Brussels to work together to expand their aerial refuelling 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 refuelling 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 refuelling, which is vital to enable fighter planes to stay in the air for longer.

Under the agreement, one of many co-operative projects to be discussed, 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 defence 
co-operation arm, is encouraging European states to acquire more refuelling pods, made by British defence group Cobham, an EU official said.

These pods could be shared between European countries.

The refuelling project is an example of the stepped-up military co-operation being forced on European states partly by the financial crisis that has led to sharp cuts in defence spending as governments face austerity.