The Brazilian KC-390 Generates More Interest in Europe

To fulfill their logistics and transportation needs, the Swedish Air Force currently operates a small fleet of C-130H Hercules medium-lift aircraft, which they first received in 1965, some fifty years ago, as C-130Es from Lockheed. While the majority of their Hercs are/were used for transport purposes, one was repurposed as a air-to-air tanker. All underwent a period of modernization in the 1980s, bringing them to the C-130H standard, but the airframes are still fairly old and the SAF intends on retiring the entire fleet by the next decade, according to Since every modern military needs some form of transport/lift capability to facilitate the movement of materiel, troops, supplies, etc., the SAF will be actively looking for a replacement for their Hercs, and to that end, they’ve expressed interest in two particular aircraft- the Airbus A400M Atlas, and the Embraer KC-390.

The A400M Atlas is an all-European aircraft, originally designed to replace the C-130 and the Transall C-160 in European military service with the possibility of foreign export. It’s bigger than a Herc, though it’s smaller than the C-17 Globemaster III, the heavy strategic airlift jet that it bears an eerie resemblance to. Similar to the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon, Airbus partnered up France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and a few other nations to develop the Atlas, and in 2013, the turboprop transport was officially entered into service. The problem with the Atlas, aside from a number of technical issues that arose during its development, is its high price tag- around $181 Million USD/unit. South Africa, initially ordering eight A400Ms for its air force, nixed its procurement plans for the Atlas because of the rising costs and requested a refund in full in 2011.

Malaysia A400M first flight 30 Jan 2015 (Airbus)
Malaysia A400M first flight 30 Jan 2015 (Airbus)

The alternative, in the eyes of the Swedish military, is the Brazilian KC-390, the underdog newcomer to the tactical airlift game. Embraer, the KC-390’s designer and manufacturer, began working on a concept for an affordable airlifter that would be comparable in size to the C-130, though powered by jet propulsion instead of propellers, which contrasts with the norm with tactical airlifters. To minimize costs and to speed up the design process, Embraer used a number of “off-the-shelf” components and pre-developed technologies used in their wildly successful E-Jet regional airliner series. Currently, the KC-390 can be configured to carry around 23 tons worth of payload in its hold, which can be modified to fit specific missions. It can carry 2-3 Humvee utility vehicles, or a Guarani armored personnel carrier, or even an LAV III, or be reconfigured to carry 80 passengers or 64 paratroopers. Additionally, the KC-390 was designed with the ability to function as an aerial tanker for a variety of aircraft, including modern 4/4.5 generation fighters like the JAS 39 Gripen, a Swedish Air Force mainstay and a recent Brazilian Air Force purchase. Though in the past propeller aircraft have been far more favored than jet aircraft for use on unimproved landing surfaces (i.e. dirt and gravel airstrips) because they’re less likely to sustain powerplant damage, the head of KC-390 program swatted off that idea, saying that high bypass turbofans are far less susceptible to FOD (foreign object debris) damage than ever before. However, using turbofans instead of turboprop engines will amount to a range-decrease and a drop in fuel efficiency, when comparing the aircraft to its competitor- the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules. Price will be a factor, especially to the Swedish Air Force, as the KC-390 is expected to retail for $85 Million USD/unit. As of mid-2012, Boeing entered the program as a partner of sorts with Embraer, sharing technology and adding on its marketing capabilities to help spread the aircraft beyond South American Shores. At the moment, the KC-390 has garnered interest from a number of countries outside of Brazil for export, with a bunch, including Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic and Portugal committing to buying the jet for their air forces.


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