ROME — The first research project to be carried out by the European Union’s new defense fund will cover unmanned naval systems and be led by Italy’s Leonardo, the firm said Friday.

The EU fund, launched in 2016 to build the union’s military capabilities, foresees a pooled €5 billion (U.S. $6 billion) procurement budget.

Prior to procurement, the fund also covers a €90 million research phase called the Preparatory Action on Defence Research and a €500 million annual budget for prototypes and demonstrators.

The work awarded to an industrial team led by Leonardo — which is worth about €35 million, an Italian industrial source said — is part of the first phase, and will be contracted in coming weeks, the firm said.

The team set to work on the so-called OCEAN2020 project comprises 42 firms from 15 countries and beat off a rival bid from a team led by Airbus during the contest, which was run by the European Defense Agency.

“OCEAN2020 will see unmanned platforms of different type (fixed wing, rotary wing, surface and underwater) integrated with naval units’ command and control centres, allowing for data exchange via satellite, with command and control centres on land,” Leonardo said in a statement.

“The joint and cooperative use of both manned and unmanned vehicles will also be demonstrated as part of the project,” it added.

The project will cover two live demonstrations of maritime surveillance and interdiction operations, conducted by European fleets using unmanned aircraft, surface vessels and underwater systems, the firm said.

The first demo will be coordinated by the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean in 2019 and fly Leonardo’s Hero and Solo unmanned helicopters from Italian naval units

A second demonstration in the Baltic Sea in 2020 will be coordinated by the Swedish Navy.

The team will be supported by the defense ministries of Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Lithuania, the firm said, with additional support from the defense ministries of Sweden, France, the United Kingdom, Estonia and the Netherlands.

European partner firms include Indra, Safran, Saab, MBDA, PGZ/CTM, Hensoldt, Intracom Defense Electronics, Fincantieri and QinetiQ, as well as research centers including Fraunhofer, TNO, CMRE (of NATO) and IAI.

Airbus, which led the losing team in the tender to run the program, announced Thursday it was teaming with Naval Group to launch a technology study for a helicopter drone for the French Navy’s heavily armed ships.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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