* France, Germany to present plan in coming weeks
* Agency sees scope for cooperation with U.S.
* EU says crisis shows need for defence cooperation
* Aim to reach initial operational capability by 2018-2020
By David Brunnstrom
PRAGUE, March 13 (Reuters) - The United States may join a Franco-German project to build a new heavy transport helicopter that is already open to other EU states, the European Union said on Friday, a sign the economic crisis is hitting defence budgets
The Czech EU presidency said the crisis showed the need for more EU cooperation over defence and to avoid duplication in finding resources for EU and NATO operations.
“Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud of the crisis is that it forces us to work together to be more effective so we can achieve more with less money,” Czech Defence Minister Vlasta Parkanova said after an EU defence ministers’ meeting in Prague.
“We can’t afford duplication of efforts and capabilities.”
The European Defence Agency, which tries to coordinate EU defence projects to improve efficiency and cut duplication, said Paris and Berlin were close to taking a political decision to develop a 32-35 tonne heavy transport helicopter.
“They will come to the agency with the project and then the agency will be allowed to launch, quite likely, a road map on technologies that will be needed for the development,” EDA director Alexander Weis told the same news conference.
The proposal was expected to be presented to the EDA in “coming weeks” and the EDA would see which EU states were interested in joining the project, he said.
The agency discussed the project with Pentagon officials on Tuesday and there is “potential for transatlantic cooperation”, Weis said. The next step would be research activity and then development and procurement.
Weis said the aim was to reach initial operational capability by 2018-2020.
A chronic shortage of helicopters has held back EU efforts to become a global security player and hampered operations from Africa to Afghanistan.
France and Germany agreed last November to open up what was originally a bilateral project to other EU states. The EU said this would make it commercially more viable by doubling expected output from 60 to 120 machines.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said helicopters were vital for military, civilian and humanitarian operations. “Today helicopters have become the most important assets to do things rapidly, to do things flexibly,” he told the news conference.
In the medium term, the EDA is trying to make up for the shortage of helicopters suitable for overseas missions by upgrading some of the 200 Soviet-designed Mi-17 helicopters used by former Warsaw Pact states’ armed forces, but a shortage of funds caused by the economic downturn has hampered the project.
Germany is looking to replace some 40 of its transport helicopters by 2020, and France needs 20 — a total defence need that experts say would not by itself justify the 2 billion euro ($2.57 billion) development cost.
The two countries are currently developing the NH90 multi-role helicopter, being built by jointly by Franco-German firm EADS EAD.PAEAD.DE (62.5 percent), AgustaWestland SIFI.MI (32 percent) and Stork Fokker (5.5 percent). (Editing by Tim Pearce)