By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European NATO allies agreed on Thursday to jointly buy planes and submarines and possibly open a new command headquarters for elite troops as Europe seeks to show the United States it is serious about its own security.
In signing ceremonies at NATO, defense ministers from France and Germany said they will buy Lockheed Martin C-130J transport planes, while Germany, Belgium, and Norway will join a Netherlands-led fleet of Airbus A330 tanker planes.
"This multinational cooperation through NATO is a clear way for countries to significantly improve their armed forces while ensuring the greatest value for money for their taxpayers," said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO‘s deputy secretary general.
The letters of intent, although not legally binding, are the latest sign that European allies are starting to end years of competing national strategies that have left Europe reliant on the United States to provide basics such as refueling combat planes in the air.
New U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned NATO allies on Wednesday they must pay more towards their own defenses or potentially see less support from Washington.
Duplication is also a problem, with EU militaries owning 19 types of armored infantry fighting vehicles, compared with one in the United States, while wasted funds amount to 25 billion euros a year, according to European Commission data.
As part of a broader push to revitalize European defense cooperation in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and the rise of Islamic militancy on Europe's borders, France agreed to allow Belgian and Dutch jets to fly into its airspace in the case of a conflict with a foreign threat.
That means a Belgian jet pursuing an enemy plane would no longer have to turn back at the French border.
Ambitions also involve a new command center for Dutch, Belgian, and Danish special forces that could be used by other NATO nations and which many countries outside the main European military powers of Britain, France, and Germany do not have.
The location of the new headquarters has not been decided, a NATO official said.
Other plans include Norway and Germany buying a new class of submarines, known as U212As, that more effectively detect, track, and fire at enemy submarines and ships on the water.
Germany also agreed to join a European multinational fleet of Airbus tankers that is led by the Netherlands and already includes Luxembourg.
Germany also agreed to joint training and deployments of land forces with the Czech Republic and Romania, with both countries set to provide a brigade of several thousand troops for a larger division under German leadership.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said allies faced a "more demanding and challenging security environment" that the alliance needed to respond to. "This is a way to make what we do more efficient, and increase output," he said of the agreements signed.