PARIS - Three top European defence firms called Sunday on governments to launch a programme to manufacture drones that European countries are currently having to buy from Israel or the United States.

France's Dassault Aviation, European aerospace giant EADS and Italy's Finmeccania argued such a joint programme would "support the capability needs of European armed forces while optimising the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding". They said in a statement they were prepared to work together on the creation of a European MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) drone, which allows surveillance of vast areas over 24 hours.

The drones, until now manufactured only by Israel and its chief ally the US, have been used in modern warfare, notably in Afghanistan and Mali. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday that Paris intended to buy 12 "Reaper" observation drones from the United States in a deal worth some $894 million.

He criticised the fact that these could not be manufactured and bought in Europe, estimating that European countries need as many of 40 of the high-tech craft.

Last month, Germany scrapped a plan to buy four "Euro Hawk" unmanned surveillance drones, fearing aviation authorities would not certify them.

But the advantage of a joint European drive, said the three companies, would be that "critical requirements around the certification of drones... would inherently be built into the programme from the onset".

"European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence would be guaranteed while at the same time delivering a robust system resilient against cyber attacks," they said.

Information obtained from drones currently passes through the United States or Israel as there is no "European" means of transmission.