Author`s name AP ©

EU hails Franco-German plan to develop helicopter

A large transport helicopter developed by both France and Germany would replace U.S.-built choppers currently in service.

On Wednesday, France and Germany agreed to explore the feasibility of jointly developing a heavy lift military helicopter in the 30-ton category which would enter service by 2020. It would be used to improve transport of items such as light vehicles or artillery in places where European forces are engaged, such as Afghanistan, southern Lebanon or Africa.

The European Defense Agency said Thursday that it "warmly welcomes the announcement of a Franco-German joint project on a Future Transport Helicopter," and that the agency has "always encouraged member states to converge their thinking about future needs and to collaborate closely on such ventures."

If the program receives a final go-ahead, Eurocopter, a unit of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., is expected to receive the mandate for the project. There was no indication how many of the new aircraft would be ordered.

The new chopper would replace the 110 U.S.-built Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions in German Army inventory. The Sea Stallions are widely operated by the U.S. armed forces, and a new version, the CH-53E, is planned to enter service with the U.S. Navy and Marines by 2015.

The EU's defense agency was set up in 2004 to coordinate defense procurement within the bloc and reduce Europe's reliance on U.S. military imports. It also has sought to break down sensitive national barriers in the European arms market and open up cross-border investment in military industries.

The statement said the agency was "fully engaged" in improving member states' strategic lift capabilities.

EU nations, which lacked large transport planes and helicopters, have traditionally relied on the United States for strategic airlift.

But since the late 1990s, efforts have been under way to reduce this reliance. A new airlifter, the Airbus A400M, is due to start entering service with eight European air forces by the end of this decade. About 200 have been ordered so far.