BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Some of the European defense sector's best-known executives will advise the EU on how to reverse a slide in spending on military research which is seen as threatening its long-term viability.
Many European governments have cut spending on defense and related research and development since the 2008 global financial crisis, squeezing defense contractors.
However, jolted by Russia's actions in Ukraine, leaders of NATO - which includes 22 of the EU's 28 member states - agreed last September to stop cutting military spending and aim to move towards the alliance's target of spending two percent of economic output on defense within a decade.
The European Commission said on Monday that EU Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska had set up a high-level group of politicians, industrialists and academics to advise the EU's executive body on how it can support defense research.
The panel, which met for the first time on Monday, includes Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders, BAE Systems Chief Executive Ian King and Fernando Abril-Martorell, chairman of Spain's Indra.
Other chief executives taking part are Finmeccanica's Mauro Moretti, Antoine Bouvier of missile maker MBDA and Hakan Buskhe of Sweden's Saab.
"The Commission can play an important supporting role to reinforce national defense industries and research capacities," Bienkowska said in a statement.
Strengthening Europe's defense industry is expected to be a key topic at an EU summit in June.
EU countries planning to increase military spending include Poland and the Baltic states, which feel most threatened by a more assertive Russia.
Poland aims to increase defense spending to NATO's 2 percent target in 2016 from 1.95 percent now. Latvia and Lithuania have pledged to reach the target by 2020.
The European Defense Agency (EDA) says spending on research and technology in the defense field has fallen by 15 percent in the last five years.
One way to increase EU support for the sector would be to allow a portion of EU research spending, until now reserved for civilian purposes, to be used for military research.
The EU has earmarked 80 billion euros ($86.70 billion) for research between 2014 and 2020 under its Horizon 2020 program.
The defense ministers of France, Germany and Poland, who meet in Berlin later on Monday, are expected to call for EU loans to be made available for defense research, according to a French Defense Ministry source.
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Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris; Editing by Gareth Jones