The most complex aircraft developed in Brazil, the Embraer KC-390 Millennium airlifter has already proven its capacity and efficiency. In service with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) since 2019 and ordered by Portugal and Hungary, in addition to being selected by the Netherlands, the plane manufactured at the Brazilian company’s plant in Gavião Peixoto must now enter a decisive new phase in search of more customers.
During the defense and security event LAAD 2023, in Rio de Janeiro, the KC-390 was the main topic discussed. New parties interested in the jet aircraft have emerged and Embraer signed an important agreement with Saab that may open up new business fronts for the aircraft.
But from the first conversations to the signing of an agreement, there is a lengthy process, guided by technical but also political aspects, depending on the nation that wants a plane of this type.
Ordered by Brazil to replace the old C-130 Hercules, the KC-390 is today the biggest rival of Lockheed Martin’s traditional aircraft, surpassing the famous turboprop manufactured in the United States in practically all aspects, in addition to being a modern aircraft. .
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With that in mind, every country that decides to replace its Hercules or acquire an aircraft of this category should consider the aircraft manufactured in Brazil, not least because there is no other option for an aircraft of this type in the West. This is what happened in the case of the choice of Holland, for example.
Based on information that has been known for some years and recent data, Air Data News lists the following potential Millennium customers:
Argentina is one of the strategic partners of Embraer’s KC-390 program, as well as Portugal and the Czech Republic. The Argentines collaborate on the project by supplying structural parts for the aircraft, which are produced by the local manufacturer FAdeA.
Buenos Aires even signed a letter of intent to purchase up to six Millennium in 2010, but the negotiation has not advanced until today. Nor should it advance any time soon due to the current fragile economic situation of the neighboring country of Brazil, more concerned with modernizing its C-130H.
In 2010, Colombia emerged as a strong candidate to buy Embraer’s multi-mission aircraft. That year, the country signed a letter of intent to purchase up to 12 aircraft and also considered becoming a strategic partner in the program. However, none of the agreements went ahead.
However, last week, during LAAD, the Minister of Defense of Brazil, José Múcio, revealed that the Colombians are still interested in the Brazilian plane and could make an acquisition.
Still in South America, another nation that has already shown enthusiasm for the C-390 is Chile. Like the Colombians, the Chileans also signed purchase intent agreements (for up to five aircraft) and to participate in the KC-390 project. However, none of them evolved to the contractual stages.
Currently, however, the chance of the Chilean Air Force acquiring the Embraer plane is small, given that the country acquired three second-hand KC-130R Hercules (version capable of providing aerial refueling) from the US Navy in 2016.
From South America to North America, Embraer also envisages the chance of selling the KC-390 to the US Air Force (USAF), the one that pioneered the use of the C-130 Hercules in the distant year of 1954.
In September 2022, the Brazilian manufacturer joined the US company L3 Harris to launch the “Agile Tanker” project, based on the Brazilian multimission jet and which will be offered to the USAF.
Among the project’s proposals are the production of the aircraft in the United States in order to comply with the “Buy American Act” legislation. The KC-390s would then be retrofitted at the L3Harris facility in Waco, Texas.
The USAF or the other armed forces of the country, however, at this moment do not plan a program on an aircraft with the characteristics of the Agile Tanker project. Apart from that, the US Air Force is already considering, in the medium term, a complete transformation in the formula of aerial refueling planes, which must adopt a stealthy design and autonomous commands to obtain greater survivability in a contested environment.
In Europe, it is worth mentioning the Czech Republic, which is a strategic partner of Embraer in the KC-390 program. Like Argentina, the country in Eastern Europe (member of NATO) is another supplier of components to complete the aircraft in Brazil. Parts of the wings and side doors of the Millennium are manufactured by AERO Vodochody.
The partnership was established in 2010, when the Czechs also signed a declaration of intent to purchase two aircraft. A portion of the agreement has advanced, but the firm order remains pending.
Quite independent in designing and producing its own fighter planes, Sweden still relies on foreign suppliers for transport aircraft. In this context, Saab and Embraer signed a Memorandum of Understanding, at LAAD 2023, to position Millennium “as the preferred solution for the tactical air transport requirements of the Swedish Air Force”, as mentioned in the communiqué about the beginning of the new partnership – the MoU also includes agreements regarding the FAB’s Gripen E fighters and for export in South America.
The two manufacturers also intend to evaluate the integration of equipment and systems (another area in which Sweden has an important technological independence) of Saab in the KC-390. A Millennium sale, however, could still take some time.
The Swedish Air Force, which wanted to modernize its old C-130Hs (some of the oldest Hercules in Europe, delivered in the 1960s), recently opted to buy used C-130J Super Hercules models from Italy, but the deal did not go through. .
Another potential European customer on the KC-390 is Austria. In recent weeks, the Austrian Air Force has been following the Brazilian plane closely. A delegation from the country participated in the first meeting of Millennium users, held in early April in Portugal. The Austrians also visited LAAD 2023 to discuss a possible deal with the manufacturer.
The KC-390 is an aircraft that meets the Austrian government’s requirements for a new transport aircraft, which must have a payload capacity of at least 20 tonnes and be capable of providing aerial refueling support. The Austrian Air Force is expected to order between four and five aircraft to replace its aging C-130K Hercules turboprops.
In Asia, the country that is currently looking for new transport aircraft is South Korea, which last year launched a proposal for the selection of a new airlifter. Other manufacturers that sent proposals were Airbus, with the A400M Atlas, and Lockheed Martin with the C-130J Super Hercules, which is emerging as a great candidate to win the program, given the US political influence in Seoul and the compatibility of military equipment between the armed forces of the two countries.
To mark territory on the south side of the Korean Peninsula, Embraer started talks with local companies to put together the proposal for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). In October last year, the Brazilian company signed Memorandum of Understanding with ASTG (Aerospace Technology of Global), EMK (EM Korea Co.) and Kencoa Aerospace, headquartered in South Korea.
Perhaps the most ambitious customer for the C-390 Millennium is India. The press in the Asian country has been commenting in recent months about New Delhi opening negotiations with the Brazilian manufacturer to acquire up to 60 KC-390 aircraft. An order of this size would make the Indian Air Force the largest operator of the Millennium.
In the new geopolitical horizon that is approaching and inserted in the context of the BRICS, the KC-390 is an interesting aircraft for a country like India, which does not always side with the rulers and the pains of the West to be self-sufficient in important technological sectors and several other areas.
In an agreement that may be good for both parties (India wins a modern aircraft and Brazil, a major customer), a new Millennium production line may be installed in Indian lands, further collaborating with the advancement of the Indian aeronautics industry.