Airbus has launched a hearts and minds campaign to make New Zealanders aware of what it has to offer the Royal NZ Air Force to replace its ageing Hercules.
The European plane maker is taking out a series of adverts in the Herald for its new A400M plane it hopes to pitch when tenders are sought. Adverts highlight the plane's capabilities ahead of what is shaping up as an intense, high-stakes battle between manufacturers when the RNZAF seeks tenders to replace five Hercules, now more than 50 years old. The two air force Boeing 757s are also due for replacement early next decade as part of a $1 billion-plus overhaul of the transport fleet.
New Zealand politicians have already flown on a jet-engine powered Boeing C-17 Globemaster used in Australia, seen by some analysts as having the inside running to replace the Hercules. Airbus says its advertising campaign - the first it has done in this market - is aimed at letting the public know there are alternatives.
"We think we need to speak up and explain there is an alternative," Airbus defence manager NZ Valentin Merino said. "We have a feeling we need to explain there is an alternative to the C-17 to comply with what New Zealand wants to do."
New Zealand would soon make a "very important" decision about planes that would be around for 30 or 40 years.
"It is a moment of truth - we want to be sure that there is an alternative that is not so well known among the general public," Merino said.
The advert says the heavy lift turbo prop plane can carry cargo for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in this country and the Pacific. It can also fly to Antarctica with sufficient fuel to turn around if it cannot land, Airbus said.
RNZAF top brass have flown on the A400M and a senior officer had a look at the plane at the recent Avalon Air Show in Australia, Merino said.
There had been no call for tenders and Merino said it could be several years before the air force made a decision on which planes to buy.
The Government would outline more details of what it needed the planes for in a White Paper due for release later this year. The Ministry of Defence would then seek options for aircraft to meet that criteria.
Airbus is also promoting its smaller C295, a twin engine plane that could be used for short-range maritime surveillance as well as short- to medium-range humanitarian and military missions.
Victoria University Centre for Strategic Studies senior fellow Peter Greener said an aircraft manufacturer advertised at Wellington Airport several years ago, ahead of a training aircraft decision, in another "hearts and minds" campaign.
"The manufacturers are wanting to raise the profile of their product," he said. "It seems unusual in terms of newspaper advertising about large investments that will be with us for decades to come but anything that raises public awareness and adds to the debate is useful."
The advertisements were a way of publicising the plane without breaking strict rules about approaching decision makers.
The bidding process follows set rules and any direct approaches are carefully governed with a clear and transparent tender process.
"You can publicly display your wares but that's very different from lobbying the defence minister or the air force," said Greener, who was previously academic dean at the Command and Staff College of the NZ Defence Force.
He said it was difficult to directly compare the Airbus and Globemaster, which was also flown by the Royal Australian Air Force.
"It's definitely not a case of apples and apples. The issue for New Zealand is what do we want the aircraft to do - mostly."
Embraer's KC-390 twin jet military transporter, which last month completed its first test flight, and the latest model Hercules, could also be in the running.
Transport contender: Airbus A400M
• Developed at estimated cost of $26 billion.
• Four turboprop engines with eight-bladed propellers.
• Can fly up to 8700km, at a cruising altitude up to 37,000ft.
• Can carry 116 personnel. Maximum payload of up to 37 tonnes.
• Can operate on rough, short airfields.
• 174 orders from eight air forces.