The Ministry of Defence has quietly launched a project to acquire tens of millions of dollars worth of drones for potential use in combat by New Zealand armed forces.
Military procurement documents viewed by the Herald reveal the ministry wants to buy dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles of widely varying sizes for use by the NZ Army.
They include large fixed-wing remotely piloted aircraft able to fly far away from soldiers to help artillery teams target distant enemy positions.
The drones are being sought as part of an effort to improve and modernise the Army's surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
There is no indication in the documents that the military intends to buy killer drones able to fire on targets as part of the project.
Also sought are tiny and stealthy nano drones, like large flying insects, used for surveillance by recon soldiers or snipers.
The Defence Force has already operated drones in limited numbers, but this represents a significant expansion of its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet.
The ministry has now gone to industry seeking suppliers for the drones, launching a formal Request for Proposal process.
That procurement process is part of tranche two of the Network Enabled Army programme, aiming to modernise New Zealand's land forces.
Tranche two has a budget of more than $100 million, the documents show, of which at least $20m is earmarked for drones.
Of the dozens of drones sought, initial indicative quantities in the overview document show Defence wants between two and four independent unmanned aerial systems (UAS) sets, each with multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), likely large fixed-wing models.
Another unclassified document shows a diagram of these large drones, equipped with laser target designators and range finders, working with artillery units to direct fire.
Multiple drones were required so the enemy could be watched for hours at a time, the document said.
"A single UAS team may be tasked for up to 12 hours conducting area surveillance – and thus requires a proposed UAS system of multiple UAV, and sufficient batteries, to sustain this period.
These drone teams could operate in war zones, where they may watch and help target "enemy high-value targets, headquarters, logistic nodes, installations", but they might also operate during humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations, the document said.
The project is also looking to acquire between 30 and 40 nano drones, plus 18 to 30 micro remotely piloted aircraft systems, the documents reveal.
One of the better-known tiny military drones, the Black Hornet Nano, resembles a large dragonfly and has a single main rotor and a tail rotor like a helicopter.
It is billed by its manufacturer as nearly silent and beams live footage back to the operator, and is able to fly and hover for up to 25 minutes. A single unit reportedly costs US$195,000 ($314,000).
Micro drones are somewhat larger, but still able to be easily carried by a single soldier.
Information provided to suppliers by the ministry said the micro and nano drones would be used by sniper pairs and teams, and reconnaissance troops.
"Sections or squads will use nano RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft systems] during patrols to locate the enemy and during effective enemy fire," a document said.
"Sections and squads may use the nano RPAS to provide flank security to another platoon, troop, company or squadron."
Those troops would use micro drones where they needed higher-quality footage or a longer flight range, such as checking out the security of a patrol route, the same document said.
Along with the drones, tranche two is also seeking dozens of "remote ground sensors" to provide wireless surveillance beyond the line of sight, such as around a camp perimeter.
The Request for Proposals tender opened on May 31 and closes on July 26.
Military drones have played a prominent role in the war in Ukraine, filming strikes on Russian positions. Armed models including the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 have destroyed armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft systems.
Both sides have reportedly deployed so-called "loitering munitions", kamikaze drones carrying explosives that can loiter in the air then dive-bomb targets.
Nothing in the procurement documents viewed by the Herald indicates the Ministry of Defence is seeking armed drones able to fire on targets.
A Defence spokeswoman said the equipment being sought relates to surveillance and does not include UAVs with offensive capabilities.
A reference to "payload" in the documents relates to a sensor to be carried by the drones, she said.
The Ministry of Defence was unable to confirm the exact amount to be spent on the drones, citing commercial sensitivity, but confirmed it was north of $20m.
The spokeswoman said it had no immediate plans to procure loitering munitions.
"However, NZDF constantly reviews and explores the potential benefits of a range of emerging technologies such as loitering munitions.
"This could include limited experimentation by NZDF force elements with these technologies in order to make informed decisions about future or replacement military capability."