By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) - The German military has decided to replace its ageing short-range air defense systems and help fill a gap that has caused concern among NATO allies following Russia's annexation of Crimea, a defense ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
U.S. and German military officials last year identified a growing gap in short-range air defense weapons, or SHORAD, in Europe, including the ability to defend against a swarm of unmanned aircraft or drones.
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"The decision has been made to start the process of closing the gap that will occur when the current short-range air defense capability goes out of service," the German spokesman said.
A source familiar with the plans told Reuters last month such a decision would pave the way for a procurement program valued at 460 million euros ($495.74 million) till the middle of the next decade, with 2 billion euros in further spending likely in a later phase.
A ministry document showed the program could cost a total of 3.3 billion euros through 2030, excluding possible laser technology upgrades that could be added to the system later, a source familiar with the document said on Thursday.
The document said a budget increase would be required to avoid a negative effect on other procurement programs.
As a next step, the ministry will now map out its functional requirements and then draft a formal acquisition strategy.
Germany, under pressure from new U.S. President Donald Trump to increase military spending, has identified missile defense as a priority in a 2016 'white paper'. It is working with the Netherlands to better coordinate NATO air and missile defenses.
NATO wants Germany to provide very-short-range defenses for 10 fire units, short-range capabilities for six additional fire units and counter rocket, artillery and mortar defenses for four fire units, according to the source.
Acquisition decisions on the new air defense equipment are not expected until 2018 or later, but the ministry could add some 20 million euros to the defense budget this year to fund initial work on the program, sources familiar with the plans have said.
Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine have prompted NATO members to consider beefing up Europe's defenses, though Trump has signaled he now wants to improve ties with Moscow.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Gareth Jones, Larry King)