BUDAPEST Hungary will increase its defence spending gradually to 2 percent of its economic output by 2026 from 0.95 percent now, Defence Minister Istvan Simicsko said on Thursday.
Hungary, which joined NATO in 1998, spends less on defence than other eastern European members Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Although military spending among NATO members has increased because of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine, only Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia meet the goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defence.
Top NATO and European military officials have called for higher spending after U.S. President-elect Donald Trump questioned whether Washington should protect allies that do not spend enough on their own defence.
Simicsko told Reuters that Hungary's annual defence spending would increase by 0.1 percent each year, which means a rise to about 350 billion forints ($1.21 billion) this year.
"By 2026 we will could reach 2 percent (of GDP)," he said.
The minister said Hungary would embark on a defence development programme, which would include the procurement of military helicopters.
He said that four of Hungary's Russian Mi-17 helicopters were being refurbished in Russia at the moment and declined to say how many functioning helicopters Budapest had on hand.
Some were deployed to patrol the EU's Schengen border with Serbia to the south, he said.
"I would not exclude the possibility that a (helicopter) tender would be put out before (2018) elections," he said, adding that any decision on actual purchases could only be made after the parliamentary elections.
"We have to operate until then, that's why we made the decision to refurbish some of our Russian helicopters," he added.
Simicsko declined to say how many and what type of helicopters Hungary would want to purchase, but said that a force of 30 to 40 helicopters could be considered "significant" for a country the size of Hungary in the region.
"If we buy 10, that would be more than what we have now," he said.
($1 = 288.6 forints)
(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Tom Heneghan)