* New planes would help fill European gap
* Contract expected to be signed around mid-2015
* France offers to take lead on European drone programme
(Adds quotes and background)
By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS, April 11 Five European countries
interested in buying eight to 10 military refuelling and
transport planes have asked for information on products and
pricing from Airbus and Boeing, a European
defence official said on Friday.
A contract for the planes is expected to be signed around
the middle of next year, an official with the European Defence
Agency (EDA), the European Union's defence arm, told reporters,
speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official also said France had offered to take the lead
on a project to develop a European surveillance drone.
The Netherlands is leading a European initiative to acquire
a multinational tanker fleet to help reduce shortages in
Europe's air-to-air refuelling and strategic transport
capacities which were highlighted by the 2011 Libyan war.
EU leaders set the goal of acquiring more of these planes at
a summit last December.
The Airbus A-330, chosen by the British and French air
forces, and the Boeing KC-767, used by the Italian air force,
can be used for both refuelling and transport.
The Ukraine crisis has focused European governments' minds
on defence capabilities which have withered because of deep
defence cuts in response to the financial crisis.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Poland and Norway are
interested in the air tanker programme, the EDA official said.
"A request for information on behalf of the participating
member states has been sent to industry - Boeing and Airbus -
and we expect a decision towards the end of this year leading to
contract signature around the middle of next year," he said.
The information request was submitted by the EDA and OCCAR,
a European defence procurement agency.
ORDER COULD RISE
The group of nations is expected to order between eight and
10 planes, the official said.
"It's conceivable that it could be more but at this stage we
haven't had any formal indications that other member states want
to join this initiative," he said.
Acquiring the planes would be "significant improvement in
European capability", he said.
He could not say how much the planes would cost. "That's
part of the request for information," he said. The target is to
have at least some of the planes in service by 2020.
All 28 EU member states except Denmark belong to the EDA.
Non-EU member Norway has an agreement with the EDA allowing it
to take part in its programmes.
The EDA works to make tight European defence budgets go
further by encouraging member states to work together to acquire
and operate military equipment.
At the December summit, EU leaders pledged to develop a
European surveillance drone by 2020-2025.
The EDA hopes to launch a drone project by June but that
would need at least two member states to sign up, the official
said. "Informally, France has indicated a willingness to lead
this ... project," he said.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; editing by Justyna Pawlak and