African countries, like many other countries in the world, constantly deal with unforeseen issues, such as natural disasters, conflicts, and humanitarian emergencies, which require the swift transport of relief supplies, medical equipment, and personnel. Embraer believes its C-390 Millenium military transport aircraft is well designed to meet these challenges, and is seeing interest from a number of nations on the continent looking for a capable and efficient new-generation military transport.
According to Embraer, the C-390 redefines military airlift and challenges the thinking behind current and future generation platforms. The initial design concept for the C-390 started with consideration of the payload requirements of modern militaries and the variety of missions that the aircraft would be called upon to conduct. This means multi-mission capability and interoperability are built in by design, enabling 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. For example, the C-390 can assist forestry and fishery departments 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 Department of Health in transporting ambulances as well as medical equipment in different parts of the country, for example.
For many African nations, Embraer believes a capable multi-mission aircraft like the C-390 is the best option since it performs a wide range of tasks. The C-390 can transport and launch cargo and troops and perform a wide array 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 generated 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 able to operate on temporary or unpaved runways such as packed earth, soil and gravel – the high mounting of its engines ensures no debris are ingested. Embraer pointed out that since delivery to the Brazilian Air Force in 2019, the C-390 Millennium has been successfully operating in extreme climatic 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. The recent earthquake in Morocco and flooding in Libya show two countries in which transport aircraft were used to bring in aid, but temperatures in the south of Algeria between the Sahara and Sahel deserts can reach 50 degrees Celsius, making operations a challenge for many aircraft. The C-390 has been designed to withstand those harsh climate conditions.
Embraer points to a solid track record for the C-390 since entering service with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in 2019 (Full Operational Capability was achieved in March 2023). The current fleet of six aircraft, all in the aerial refuelling KC-390 version, have accumulated more than 10 000 flight hours, with operational availability of 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-sized 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 airlifter, with agility, low speed handling and precision for airdrop, firefighting, aerial refuelling and other missions, Embraer says.
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 commercial IAE V2500 jet engines (rather than four like the Il-76 or C-130) 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 Mission in 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. South Africa, for example, is spending R1 billion upgrading its C-130 fleet while countries like Angola, Nigeria, and Mali have acquired medium transport aircraft, but demand is still outstripping supply.
Growing need for multirole transport
As highlighted by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, growing security threats posed by agile and manoeuvrable forces such as narcotics traffickers, coastal pirate gangs, and nonstate militias have underscored the critical importance of security force mobility to monitor and protect Africa’s enormous land mass and more than 30 000 km of coastline
Security and humanitarian challenges face many inaccessible areas of Africa, including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, where poor roads and rugged terrain make convoys slow, ineffective, and vulnerable to landmines or ambush, leaving air transport as the only effective option.
Embraer estimates Africa will need 105 aircraft in the C-390 class over the next 20 years, with global demand for this category amounting to 490 aircraft. Last year, the C-390 toured two African and eight Middle Eastern countries, of which some had specifically asked to see the aircraft, indicating strong interest in the type. A KC-390 is currently on an Africa tour, having arrived in Rwanda on 21 November before flying to South Africa on 23 November. It was demonstrated to the South African Air Force and other government entities before departing for Ghana, via Namibia, on 26 November, arriving back in Brazil on 27 November.
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.
Growing customer base
Embraer is quickly accumulating new sales of its flagship transport aircraft, with the Austrian Ministry of Defence for example on 20 September announcing its decision to select the C-390 as its new tactical transport solution to replace its Lockheed C-130K Hercules. Austria will acquire four C-390s.
Austria and the Netherlands are together buying nine aircraft, with a contract expected to be finalised in the first half of 2024. Delivery of the first aircraft is expected within two to three years after the contract is signed. Other existing customers include Brazil (19), Hungary (two) and Portugal (five).
The Czech Republic looks set to become another C-390 customer, with the country’s defence ministry on 16 October announcing the start of negotiations on potential acquisition of two of the new-generation aircraft. The decision to start negotiating towards possible purchase of the C-390 was based on a market assessment and analysis prepared by the Czech Ministry of Defence, which identified the C-390 as the most suitable solution.
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.
Embraer believes its swept wing makes the C-390 jet the most efficient such aircraft in the market: a fleet of six C-390s flying 1 350 nautical mile (2 500 km) round trips are able to deliver 500 tons and 1 000 passengers in less than two days, which is 40% faster than the C-130J. The C-390 is able to operate from unpaved runways and at slow speeds (thanks to fly-by-wire flight controls and massive flaps), and also fly high, fast and far, making it a versatile all-rounder and a viable candidate to meet Africa’s military airlift needs.
According to Embraer, the C-390 Millennium is the right choice, right now for African 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.