ROME and PARIS — European defense ministers signed up on Monday to carry out a definition study for a European MALE UAV program, hailing it as a step toward ending Europe's reliance on Israeli and US drones.

"The goal of the Euro-drone is that we can decide by ourselves in Europe on what we use it, where we deploy the Euro-drone and how we use it," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said.

"This makes us, the Europeans, independent."

Under the Declaration of Intent signed by the governments of Italy, Germany and France, a two-year definition study will be undertaken, followed by a decision about whether to develop and procure the UAV.

The work will be undertaken by Dassault, Airbus and Finmeccanica, who first lobbied the governments to start a program two years ago. France, Italy and the UK all now operate General Atomics UAVs.

Describing the new deal, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, "It's a very important step for European cooperation, a critical cooperation which we must have at our disposal in many theaters of operation."

In March, Le Drian said a new European drone would be ready by 2025, able to fly in European skies.

The CEOs of the three firms involved also applauded the DoI. "This important step by industry and government clearly recognizes that sovereignty in development of new systems, and specifically in military reconnaissance and unmanned aviation is of strategic importance for European security," said Bernhard Gerwert, CEO Airbus Defence and Space.

"European countries must develop a sovereign, Next Generation MALE UAS solution, for both military and security missions, which is required by our Armed Forces," said Eric Trappier, CEO Dassault Aviation.

Mauro Moretti, CEO of Finmeccanica, called the deal "a unique opportunity to pursue a joint technological path built on proven industrial leaderships all contributing to a single objective."

In a joint statement, the firms said they had submitted in May 2014 a study proposal "envisaging a 24-month "Definition Phase", immediately followed by a full "Development Phase." This will allow the delivery of the first solutions in the early 2020s."

The definition phase would cover discussions with the three national governments about "key issues such as competitiveness, sovereignty, growth potential, compliance with joint requirements or certification."

Describing the program, named MALE 2020, the firms said it would "take into account the need to optimize the difficult budgetary situation through pooling of research and development funding," adding, "With a sovereign European development, critical requirements around the certification of drones are inherently built into the program from the onset."