Dark Horse – Embraer causes a surprise with the KC-390

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A remarkable industrial operation is underway. Two years ago Embraer unveiled the KC-390, a project for a military transport twin-jet, able to carry a payload of 20 tons. Its designation is misleading since “KC” generally refers to an in-flight refueling tanker (a role which the future Brazilian aircraft could also assume).

To minimize the initial investment, Embraer envisaged developing the KC-390 derived from the E-190 regional jet. Soon, it became apparent that this was not a good idea and the engineering department decided to start from scratch. This led to the emergence of an attractive – not quite minimalist – project, which should make it possible to offer this contender for succession to the Lockheed Martin C-130 H and C-130J at a price of around 50 million dollars – sort of a low-cost offer.

The task was therefore to build a business plan starting from this simple technical proposal. However the relatively modest needs of the Brazilian Air Force (apparently 28 planes to start with) did not make for a reasonable starting point for such a program. This explains the incredulity that the KC-390 aroused initially, with these mixed feelings constituting the obvious negation of Embraer’s desire to expand its product range.

The next phase was foreseeable. The very dynamic teams from São José dos Campos, with a market study in hand which generated a certain amount of optimism, undertook a wide-ranging search for customer/partners. In other words, launch customers who would participate in the financial risks. The method has been used before, and has proven worthwhile.

Curiously enough, France was the first to show an interest. At first glance, it does not need an aircraft in the category of the KC-390, in view of its commitment to 50 Airbus A400Ms and its fleet of “small” EADS / CASA C-295s. However, expressing an interest in the future Brazilian jet could make sense in the context of the extraordinarily complicated negotiations concerning the Rafale, with Dassault Aviation caught up in a tense competitive atmosphere, and facing off against the US and Sweden. Hence the unexpected announcement of France’s intention to purchase ten KC-390s. Sooner or later we will find out if that is a winning strategy or not.

Since then, the pre-launch of the KC-390 has made great strides. In alphabetical order, Chile, Colombia, the Czech Republic and Portugal have signed intents to purchase for a total of 26 aircraft. Though not a massive order, it is a good start, with sixty-four units already placed overall – in principle at least.

Lockheed Martin’s apathy is quite surprising, since a new version of its tireless C-130 is apparently out of the question. Boeing, in the meantime, hopes above all to extend the career of the big C-17, but this is a high-end product in a different category. Embraer could in fact succeed, without being encumbered by the A400M, consequently confirming that its strategy of incremental steps has a realistic foundation.
Pierre Sparaco-AeroMorning
Translated by Tim Bowler

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