KC-390 at Waterkloof for SAAF demonstration

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A Brazilian Air Force Embraer KC-390 Millenium tanker/transport aircraft landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof on Friday morning for demonstrations to the South African Air Force (SAAF) and other government departments as the SAAF investigates future replacement or augmentation of its ageing C-130BZ Hercules fleet.

The Brazilian Air Force (FAB) aircraft (PT-ZNG) arrived in South Africa on Thursday, landing at OR Tambo International Airport and parking there overnight. It was in the Middle East on 20 November before spending several days in Rwanda, which is seen as a likely potential customer.

After landing at Waterkloof, the KC-390 was met by senior Department of Defence (DoD) leadership, including Chief of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), General Rudzani Maphwanya; Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo; and Chief of the SA Navy, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese. Following a media briefing, the aircraft took off for a demonstration flight with SANDF members and various representatives from government departments.

Maphwanya, speaking to the media, said the SANDF has embarked on a ‘Journey to Greatness’, and this includes having the ability to project forces into the African theatre in pursuit of bringing peace and stability to troubled areas. The SANDF is active in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the United Nations (UN), and in Mozambique with the Southern African Development Community peace mission, and will likely be involved in more UN taskings, meaning “strategic lift is needed as of yesterday.”

“We have always been struggling with an aircraft fleet that is old,” he said, 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.”

With an eye towards the future, Maphwanya explained the SANDF is “doing thorough research” on acquiring better, future-oriented heavy and medium transport aircraft. The SANDF Chief added that the market is vast, and the SANDF won’t be confined to a particular market.

“This is our first bite into understanding what is there in the market,” Maphwanya explained. “This is the first time we are considering South-South cooperation and casting the net wider.” He said as Embraer is a Brazilian company, “we started with BRICS”, referring to the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping.

The KC-390 visit comes after an April 2023 South African visit to Brazil to discuss bringing the C-390 for testing and demonstration. Maphwanya explained that the SANDF invited Embraer to showcase its aircraft and the SANDF “will invite many man others to fulfil the dream of our Journey to Greatness.”

He would not be drawn out on acquisition timelines nor number of aircraft that could be acquired, but he did say the acquisition process is tedious, and the SANDF is just feeling out options and “will play with other toys.”

In terms of number of new aircraft acquired, project studies will determine that, but a couple of aircraft could be acquired initially while a fleet is developed, and these could operate alongside the C-130BZ fleet.

It is not clear how the SAAF could afford to acquire new aircraft, as much of the fleet is grounded from a lack of maintenance due to budget cuts, but Maphwanya said the discussion of pricing will come once competing transport aircraft have been evaluated.

One option is to jointly acquire C-390s with other government departments and for this reason various state representatives were also on board Friday’s demonstration flight. Maphwanya pointed out the C-390 is a multi-role aircraft that can be used for firefighting, VIP transport, air-to-air refuelling (it’s qualified to refuel the Gripen), maritime surveillance etc.

In the meantime, National Treasury has allocated R1 billion to keep the C-130BZ fleet flying, but Mbambo said older systems like the Hercules are becoming more expensive to maintain and run. “We are at a point where the systems we have, have reached their prime and it’s expensive to keep and run. There’s a clear difference in new and old systems.”

The SAAF’s Hercules fleet entered service in 1963 and comprises some of the oldest operational examples of the type globally. A lack of serviceable aircraft has forced the Air Force to hire costly charters, including Il-76s, to ferry troops and equipment across the continent.

Embraer estimates Africa will need 105 aircraft in Africa in the C-390 class over the next 20 years. Last year, the C-390 toured two Arican and eight Middle Eastern countries, of which some had specifically asked to see the aircraft, indicating strong interest in the type. Rwanda in particular believes the C-390 is a good contender for African Union nations that could use it for humanitarian and other missions across the continent – possibly in a multinational unit. In Africa, Egypt has reportedly also expressed interest, and South Korea, Colombia, and India are also understood to be considering placing future orders for the type.

Existing C-390 customers include Brazil (19), Hungary (two) and Portugal (five). In October, the Czech Republic began negotiations on the potential acquisition of two C-390s and in September Austria said it will acquire four. The Netherlands is looking at buying five.

All 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 carries 26 tonnes versus the C-130J’s 20 tonnes. Embraer claims the C-390 can carry more payload compared to other medium-sized military cargo aircraft and flies faster (870 km/h) and farther.

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, and reduced life cycle costs and greater availability, the company said. 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.

Following its demonstration flight from Waterkloof, the KC-390 flew to Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) before returning to OR Tambo International Airport on Friday evening. It departed on Sunday 26 November, arriving in Ghana after a stop in Namibia. The following day it had landed in Recife, Brazil.