* 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 (Reuters) - 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.
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 Andrew Roche)