Brazil's C-130 Rival, The KC-390, Reaches IOC, But Competition Remains Fierce

Last Wednesday, the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer declared its KC-390 medium transport aircraft to have achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC), Flight Global reports.

The two prototype aircraft have performed more than 1,500 hours of test flights since the type first took to the skies on February 3, 2015. They were also subjected to more than 40,000 hours of testing on the ground.

Still, and in spite of the important milestone, there is still much to be done before the aircraft reaches full operational capability, next year.

Full-scale fatigue tests still need to be performed, as well as aerial refueling and cargo drop trials. It is worth noting that the full operational capability for the Brazilian Air Force is more or less on par with the IOC standards for the U.S. Air Force.

A final certificate to clear the KC-390 for unlimited operations within civilian airspace is also pending. The Brazilian civil aviation authority has currently provided a temporary certificate, but Embraer's new aircraft will only be cleared once the testing is completed.

Nevertheless, the third KC-390, which also corresponds to the first production unit, is already being assembled for delivery to the Brazilian Air Force sometime during 2018.

Thus, the KC-390 will enter the medium military transport market, a heavily contested arena which is being rapidly filled with a swathe of new airplanes. Competition to find clients will certainly be fierce.

The Embraer Super Tucano is the measure against all other COIN aircraft are compared to.
The Super Tucano's international popularity shows how successful Embraer can be in the military market.

Embraer (Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica - Brazilian Aeronautical Company, in Portuguese) was created in 1969 as a Brazilian government's attempt to bolster the national aircraft industry. Its first product was a two-engine light passenger aircraft, the EMB 110 Bandeirante.

As the years passed by, the company produced several successful models of civilian aircraft. It also delved into the military market, starting with conversions of the Bandeirante.

In 1980, the company would produce the EM 312 Tucano, a single-engine trainer aircraft with combat capabilities. Innovative and successful, the new plane eventually provided the basis for the development of the larger EMB 314 Super Tucano.

The latter model became a quintessential anti-guerrilla aircraft, sold to countries all over the world, including the U.S. In American use, the plane was tested as a potential type for the Afghan Air Force, eventually earning a contract for 26 aircraft.

Nevertheless, the development of the KC-390 was a risk for the Brazilian company.

Started in 2006, the project aimed at developing an aircraft with capabilities similar to the venerable C-130 Hercules.

The president of Embraer at the time, Luiz Carlos Aguiar, expected to find a market for almost 700 aircraft, as reported by the Portuguese defense news outlet Operational. According to Mister Aguiar, there are several old transport airplanes serving around the world that need to be replaced within the next years.

The result of this aim is a high-wing airplane with two jet engines. With a maximum take-off weight of around 80 tons, the KC-390 is also the largest airplane ever developed in South America. It will be able to transport up to eighty passengers or 26 tons of cargo, or to perform aerial refueling missions.

This project also has an international edge to it, involving the participation of Portuguese, Czech, Chilean, Argentine, and even American companies. Embraer expected orders from most of these countries. To this date, only Brazil and Portugal came forward with solid orders of 28 and five aircraft respectively.

However, the KC-390 won't be the only model attempting to fill the medium transport aircraft niche. This is potentially a multi-billion dollar market, and it should be no surprise that several companies are interested in stepping in.

The aforementioned Lockheed-Martin C-130 is the most obvious competitor. The American model entered service back in 1954, and the current version, the C-130J, has already gained around 600 orders.

European and Asian manufacturers are also developing newer airplanes.

The Airbus A-400M Atlas is already serving with several NATO countries and also Malaysia. However, the type has been marred by several technical issues.

Airbus is also in charge of the smaller CASA C-295, a twin-turboprop airplane which has already found clients all over the world.

Ukraine's Antonov is developing the An-178, an airplane that is in essence quite similar to the Brazilian type. Saudi Arabia and Iraq have professed their interest in the airplane, but there are no solid orders.

In Russia, the United Aircraft Corporation is developing the Ilyushin Il-276. The first flight of the type shouldn't happen before 2023, though.

The People's Republic of China operates the Shaanxi Y-9, a four-turboprop transport roughly similar to the C-130.

The Kawasaki C-2 is Japan's entry in this market, although the model boasts a longer range that puts it within the scope of strategic airlift. The C-2 entered service with the Japanese Self Defense Air Force last year, and Kawasaki hopes to find foreign customers. Until now, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have shown interest in the type.

Price and especially political maneuvering may be the defining factors in this market. With most of the aforementioned models costing more than $100 million per airframe, the Brazilian entry may actually have an edge, given its cost of around 80 million dollars per unit.

Only the future will tell how successful the KC-390 will be. However, given Embraer's history, there is hope for the largest airplane the company has ever produced.