Embraer confident the C-390 Millennium is the best airlift solution for South Africa

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Embraer demonstrated its C-390 Millenium airlifter to the South African Air Force (SAAF) in November last year, and continues to market the aircraft to South Africa, not just for the military but for disaster relief and other humanitarian missions.

In April, Embraer officials concluded a successful meeting with the South African National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC), to which it promoted the C-390 as a national strategic asset that can be used by different government departments for tasks such as fire-fighting and humanitarian airlift.

Paballo Motoboli, Director Sales and Business Development at Embraer Defence and Security, was amongst the Embraer representatives to engage with the NDMC, including its Head, Dr Bongani Elias Sithole.

NDMC head Bongani Sithole.

Recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape has once again highlighted the need for adequate disaster response as climate change makes disasters more frequent, and more extreme – in early June, eleven people were killed after a tornado hit several areas of KwaZulu-Natal, and displaced thousands. In 2022 the province was hit by floods that left over 400 dead and over 40 000 displaced.

In summer, South Africa faces the threat of fires, with research shown that the number of high and extreme fire danger days and length of the fire season in South Africa is increasing. Devastating fires and wildland fires recently affected the Western Cape, Northwest, Limpopo, and parts of Northwest – Sithole told a conference earlier this year that between 1 December 2023 and 31 January 2024, more than 6 000 fires were affected through 100 000 hectares in South Africa, making this fire season one of the most active in years. This means there is an even greater need for firefighting equipment, including aerial firefighting assets.

In May 2024, the Department of Defence and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) signed an agreement to collaborate on disaster management. The Department of Defence and CoGTA will jointly use their resources to manage manmade and natural disasters properly. The SA Forces Institute (SAFI) will manage emergency strategic reserves and procurement in times of disaster.

The SA National Defence Force, by way of a standing operation Chariot managed by its Joint Operations Division, is committed to disaster support and humanitarian assistance. This has seen defence force elements, ranging from SA Army engineers through to SAAF helicopter flight crews and ground support as well as SA Military Health Service operations medics and others assist with disaster relief such as the KwaZulu-Natal floods of 2022.

Today, it is not just South Africa that is dealing with unpredictable issues such as natural disasters, conflicts, and humanitarian emergencies, among others. Many of these issues require immediate and very agile solutions, especially regarding logistics or the transportation of materials such as relief supplies, medical equipment or even personnel.

Embraer points out the C-390 was designed to meet the challenges of flexible, efficient airlift, and the aircraft has aroused the interest of several nations around the world that are looking for a capable, efficient, multi-mission new-generation military transport that requires little ground support. Countries such as Portugal, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, and South Korea have already chosen the C-390 Millennium to meet their military transport requirements.

Multi-mission capability and interoperability are built in by design, allowing the aircraft to be ready for all mission profiles required by an air force. However, Embraer sees the C-390 as a broader national strategic asset, serving and assisting other government departments due to its multi-mission capability. In South Africa, the C-390 could be used for maritime surveillance, firefighting, flood relief, medical evacuation and other non-military tasks as well as military airlift of troops and equipment.

The C-390 can, for example, help the forestry and fisheries department with its firefighting, search and rescue capabilities. The aircraft proved its versatility at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil by assisting the Ministry of Health in transporting ambulances and medical equipment in different parts of the country, as well as assisting the Brazilian Air Force respond to the floods that hit Rio Grande do Sul state by taking relief donations from all over the country to victims of the natural disaster.

For many African nations, including South Africa, Embraer believes that a capable multi-mission aircraft like the C-390 is the best option as it performs a wide range of tasks. The C-390 can transport and drop cargo and troops and perform a wide range of missions, including medical evacuation, search and rescue, humanitarian search and rescue, aerial refuelling (fighters and helicopters), aerial firefighting, and humanitarian assistance. This multi-mission capability provides air forces with optimal fleet performance, driven by a cost-effective combination of high availability and productivity.

Across Africa, runways and airstrips are often in poor condition, especially in more remote areas – often where disaster relief is most needed – but the C-390 is capable of operating on temporary or unpaved runways such as dirt, soil and gravel – the high mounting of its engines ensures that no debris is ingested. Embraer highlighted that since delivery to the Brazilian Air Force in 2019, the C-390 has been successfully operating in extreme weather conditions, ranging from hot and high natural surface operations in central South America to missions to a research station in Antarctica. These demanding and diverse conditions are similar to those that can be expected across Africa.

Embraer points to a solid track record for the C-390 since it entered service with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in 2019 (Full Operational Capability was reached in March 2023). The current fleet of six aircraft, all in the KC-390 aerial refuelling version, has accumulated more than 12 000 flight hours, with operational availability around 80%, and a mission completion rate above 99%, demonstrating exceptional productivity in the category.

The C-390 can carry more payload (26 tons) compared to other medium-lift military cargo aircraft and flies faster (470 knots/870 km/h) and farther, allowing it to operate as a strategic asset as well as a tactical airlift, with agility, low-speed handling and airdrop accuracy, firefighting, aerial refuelling, and other missions.

Modern efficient design

Embraer said that the latest digital design and manufacturing techniques coupled with an aerodynamic design, fly-by-wire technology, and proven efficient turbofan propulsion contribute to high efficiency and performance, meaning more efficient manufacturing and maintenance, leading to reduced life cycle costs and greater availability. Having two readily available jet means less maintenance – using the latest avionics (Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion) and systems also results in lower maintenance requirements.

These are important factors for African nations that cannot afford to have any downtime in their fleets – natural disasters and conflict are keeping African air forces busy transporting troops and cargo around the continent, so much so that many nations, including economic powerhouse South Africa, are being forced to turn to charters to meet demand. The United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, the Southern African Development Community Missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, African Union mission in Somalia as well as a growing number of natural disasters are leading to increased demand for multi-role transport aircraft.

During the C-390’s visit to South Africa last year in November, Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), General Rudzani Maphwanya, said “We have always been struggling with an aircraft fleet that is old,” pointing out the C-130 first flew in 1954. “We have this problem and are looking for a solution to address our challenges. We need to plan now – failure to plan is planning to fail.” Maphwanya explained the SANDF is “doing thorough research” on acquiring better, future-oriented heavy and medium transport aircraft.

KC-390 at AFB Waterkloof.

“This is the first time we are considering South-South cooperation and casting the net wider.” He said that as Embraer is a Brazilian company, “we started with BRICS”, referring to the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping.

Embraer is optimistic about C-390 sales globally, especially as military transport fleets are ageing, with the average age of aircraft in the C-390 class being over 31 years (most transport aircraft in Africa are outdated and obsolete, which also makes them difficult to maintain).

The C-390’s ability to function as an air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tanker (as the KC-390) adds to the type’s appeal. With a probe and drogue system, the KC-390 can transfer fuel to receiver aircraft using wing pods. The KC-390 is capable of refuelling both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, operating at speeds from 120 to 300 knots and at altitudes from 2 000 to 32 000 feet. An on-ground refuelling capability can be used to refuel vehicles or forward operating bases. This aerial refuelling capability would be useful to South Africa, as it lost such a capability when its Boeing 707 tankers were retired – this capability would have been useful when Gripens were deployed to the Central African Republic in 2013 but had to make multiple ground refuelling stops.

 Growing customer base

Embraer is quickly accumulating new sales of its flagship transport aircraft, with the latest customer being South Korea, which selected the KC-390 in December 2023. Three months prior to South Korea’s decision, the Austrian Ministry of Defence announced its decision to select the C-390 as its new tactical transport solution to replace its Lockheed C-130K Hercules. Austria aims to acquire four C-390s.

The Netherlands selected the aircraft in mid-2022, with five aircraft expected to be delivered from 2026 onwards to replace its ageing C-130H Hercules fleet. Other existing customers include Brazil (19), Hungary (two) and Portugal (five). Many other countries have shown interest in the C-390, including the Czech Republic, which is negotiating for two.

Many of the existing C-390 customers are acquiring the jet to replace their C-130 fleets. While the C-130 and C-390 are similar, the C-390 has a slightly larger cargo compartment and will carry 26 tonnes versus the C-130J’s 20 tonnes. A review conducted by the Netherlands found the C-390 offered superior payload/range, reduced maintenance and operating costs and overall greater availability and efficiency when compared to the C-130J. The C-390’s speed and versatility allow it to better access remote or disaster-stricken areas, delivering aid and support when it is needed most.

Following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a deployment of 2 900 troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo with the SAMIDRC mission, Embraer believes the that the C-390 could complete the delivery of all 2 900 troops in seven days with a fleet of only two aircraft.  Each leg of the trip could take up to 3hs40min, with one hour on the ground to refuel, offload and/or load the aircraft. Given the speed and capacity of the C-390, the South African Air Force could utilize the same crew to perform the round trip as it falls within the threshold of the crew working hours.

According to Embraer, the C-390 Millennium is the right choice, right now for South Africa and other air forces as it is proven, certified and available. It has the range and speed of a turbofan allowing it to operate as a strategic asset, able to take advantage of RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) airspace and operate into airports with RNP (Required Navigation Performance) approaches. But at the same time, it has the cargo handling ability to be a military tactical airlifter, handling loads ranging from military cargo to humanitarian aid and medical evacuation. Add to this the precision, agility and low speed handling characteristics for natural surface operations, airdrop, firefighting, and air-to-air refuelling (fast jet and rotary wing) and Embraer maintains it has a truly versatile multi-mission capability airlifter for the 21st century.