COLOGNE, Germany (Reuters) - Germany and the Netherlands could deepen missile defence ties in the coming years to strengthen NATO defences, a German general told Reuters, at a time of growing tensions with Russia.
Defence ministers from both countries will emphasise the growing importance of their military ties at a Dutch base on April 4, when a German short-range air defence unit is formally put under Dutch command.
Brigadier General Michael Gschossmann, commander of ground-based units for the German air force, said the move was "politically significant" and could pave the way for joint development of new weapons and joint operation of existing long-range missile defence systems such as the Patriot system.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has said perceived U.S. isolationism under President Donald Trump and the threat posed by Russia as well as instability in Africa and the Middle East mean Germany and Europe must be more active in regional security.
Germany and the Netherlands are also among a number of European Union states which have expelled Russian diplomats over Moscow's suspected involvement in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England.
The German and Dutch militaries have already knitted together some land forces and naval elements, and train together on missile defence, in what could be a model for deeper security cooperation in Europe in the future.
"We are now working with the Dutch to integrate our smaller systems, and suggest that cooperation could be expanded to include larger weapons systems in the longer term," Gschossmann said in an interview. "If there's a political will to move ahead, it could happen relatively quickly."
The moves are being watched by U.S. and European arms makers keen to secure orders as Western powers beef up their defences against missiles and other threats including drones.
A spokesman for German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen declined comment on the scope of future German-Dutch projects. A Dutch defence ministry spokeswoman said the two countries were looking at possible joint procurement programmes, but had not yet reached any decisions.
ECONOMY OF EFFORT
Since World War Two, Britain and France have been Europe's top military powers. However, Germany has come under increased pressure since Trump's election to meet NATO's defence spending target, set at two percent of member states' annual economic output.
The new coalition government says it intends to meet Germany's NATO commitments, but its agreement does not explicitly mention reaching the spending target by 2024.
Gschossmann said working together on new capabilities made sense given tight budgets and the fact that both countries needed to buy new short-range air defence missiles and radar systems, including a replacement for Stinger shoulder-launched missiles that will go out of service in the mid-2020s.
Germany is close to completing requirements for a new very-short and short-range air defence system that could be worth around 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in the near-term, according to government sources.
The Defence Ministry is expected to launch a competition this summer with the goal of awarding a contract in mid-2019, Gschossmann said.
Potential bidders include Diehl Defense, a privately held German weapons maker, whose IRIS-T missile has been modified with a dual-cab tracked vehicle built by a unit of BAE Systems for Sweden.
France's Thales systems, would also be likely to compete for the order, industry sources said.
Germany aims to have six brigades ready for deployment by 2032, which would require close to 20 air-defence fire units to protect them, Gschossmann said.
Joint work by the Germans and the Dutch could even extend to the United States in the future, Gschossmann said, noting that the U.S. military was also seeking to rebuild its short-range air defences after years of cuts.
In the longer term, Germany and the Netherlands could jointly operate longer-range missile defence systems such as the Patriot system built by U.S. arms maker Raytheon Co, Gschossmann said.
That system is due to remain in use in Germany until at least 2030, he said, although Germany is also negotiating a contract for a follow-on system with Lockheed Martin Corp and European missiles maker MBDA.
($1 = 0.8111 euros)
(additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by David Stamp)