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Europe set to launch drone programme

After many false starts, Europe looks ready to back plans for a drone development programme aimed at cutting its reliance on U.S. and Israeli rivals and bolstering its position in the industry.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will throw their weight behind a drive to build a next-generation European surveillance drone by 2020 to 2025, according to a draft communique seen by Reuters.

Large drones operated by European armed forces are mostly based on U.S. or Israeli designs, creating a dependence on foreign technology that some European companies and officials see as bad for European industry and military capabilities.

The EU is starting research into drone technologies and studying needs and it will be a year or more before governments have to pledge cash and companies bid to develop the new drone.

But the summit will be a sign of a new European determination to challenge the U.S. and Israeli lead in a market that U.S. defence consultants Teal Group estimate will be worth $89 billion worldwide over the next decade.

Claude-France Arnould, chief executive of the European Defence Agency, said she expected the leaders to commit to projects on drones, as well as air-to-air refuelling, government satellite communications and cyber defence.

In an interview with Reuters in Paris, she warned that Europe risked losing its defence industry if it did not commit quickly to military cooperation programmes like these.

"It would be a tragedy if we emerged healed from the financial crisis but having lost in the meantime all of our industrial and technological defence capacity," she said.

European countries have worked on a number of previous drone programmes, individually or cooperatively. But they have often failed because of competing national needs, corporate rivalry, technical problems and lack of government support.

Governments will also have to overcome past problems which have seen joint European defence programmes, such as the Airbus A400M military transporter, overrun in time and money.

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