Unbowed in its push into the lucrative U.S. defense market, Airbus said Monday it is aiming to sell about 210 of its much delayed A400M military airlifters to the United States.
The comments from Domingo Urena, chief of Airbus Military, come as parent company EADS still smarts from a move last week by U.S. partner Northrop Grumman Corp. to pull out of their combined bid for a massive $35 billion contract to build refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.
Northrop explained it didn't think it could win, and EADS said it couldn't bid alone. The move has all but ensured Airbus' U.S. rival Boeing of victory — and prompted protests by French and EU leaders of alleged American protectionism.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Paris, Urena focused on the A400M and said Airbus Military hopes to sell 500 of the planes to countries not in the original program over the next three decades — including 210 in the United States.
Marketing promotion for the A400M will rev up in the second half of this year, Urena said, and "for us, the United States is a key country."
"It's out of the question that we don't go over to compete in the United States, insofar as the Americans give us the opportunity to do it," he said.
Urena said it's too early to tell whether he would seek a partner to help sell the transporter in the United States, but would not rule out the option.
"It is clear that in the American market, if we have an American partner, in effect that gives us an opening," he said.
Urena hinted that Airbus could seek to ally with Northrop on the A400M: "Northrop Grumman is among the companies of reference in defense in the United States — but it's not the only one."
The ambition for U.S. sales for the A400M shows Airbus will press on in the U.S. despite homegrown competition for military airlifters, notably from Lockheed Martin's C-130 and Boeing's C-17.
Urena declined to provide an export catalog price for the A400M but said it would be "competitive."
Seven original customer nations for the A400M — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey — have ordered a total of 180 planes. Malaysia has another four on order.
Urena said France, Britain and Germany — which has the largest single order, for 60 planes — will receive the A400Ms first as they roll off the production line.
Airbus expects to start delivering the A400Ms sometime after December 2012 — or three years after its first flight, which was on Dec. 11. Four are expected to be completed this year.
The plane got a lifeline on March 5, when EADS and the seven customer states reached a new financing accord to pay for more than euro5.2 billion in cost overruns.
The A400M is four years behind schedule in part because of technical glitches last year. It still faces "challenges" on issues including its propulsion systems, Urena said.
As for the refueling tanker, Urena estimated the potential market outside the United States was for 250 planes — "and we're going to continue to fight" to win market share elsewhere.
EADS North America and Northrop had done "intense" work to win the tanker, but "there are things we could have done better," Urena said without elaborating.
The European Union has noted a trade imbalance between the United States and the 27-nation bloc on defense equipment. In 2008, the U.S. exported $5 billion worth of defense materials while importing only $2.2 billion from the European side, it said.
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