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Embraer C-390 Makes Inroads as C-130J Competitor

On 04 December, Embraer announced that it signed a contract with South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program (DAPA) to supply the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) with an undisclosed number of C-390 Millennium transport aircraft. Details later emerged that the ROKAF will acquire three C-390s – alongside spare parts as well as training and logistics support – for $544 million USD.

Not only does the deal mark Embraer’s first C-390 order in the Asia Pacific region, but it adds another high-profile customer to the aircraft’s growing userbase. South Korea joins Portugal, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Austria. With early traction among NATO states and key US allies, the C-390’s commercial progress up to this point has been promising; is this the momentum Embraer needs to rival Lockheed Martin’s C-130J-30 in the market for replacing legacy Hercules aircraft?


Building on its experience developing, and manufacturing executive jets and civil airliners, Embraer, Brazil’s aerospace giant, embarked on designing its first large-sized military aircraft. Development work began in earnest in 2009, with Embraer envisaging the C-390 as a multirole tanker-transport (MRTT). Embraer rolled out the first prototype in 2009 and, in turn, performed the C-390’s maiden flight in February 2015. The C-390 achieved full operational capability with the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in March 2023, which currently operates four aircraft. The FAB had an original requirement for 28 C-390s, but recurring austerity measures forced it to cut its commitment to 22 aircraft.

With a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of around 87 tons, the C-390 is powered by two IAE V2500-E5 high-bypass turbofan engines, each providing a thrust of 139.4 kN. The C-390 offers a lift capacity of about 26 tons and a ferry range of 2,000 km when at full load. In addition, the aircraft can also deploy a pair of Cobham pods to provide air-to-air refueling via the hose-and-drogue method.

Twin Jets versus Quad Turboprops

The Embraer C-390 and Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 are competing in one key market: the need to replace legacy Hercules variants, like the C-130B/E/H. Prior to the C-390’s availability, practically every air arm that operated a legacy C-130 had replaced its old Herc’s with the C-130J/J-30. Indeed, the adage of “only a Herc can replace a Herc” held true for decades as no other aircraft offered the right mix of useful lift, versatility (e.g., hot-and-high performance), and cost effectiveness (via a global userbase plus massive economies-of-scale from American orders) in one package.

However, Embraer is not coming at this market with another Hercules; rather, the company took steps to create a competing solution with its own unique strengths. Thus, the competition between the Millennium and Hercules is not only one between two comparable aircraft, but also, two distinct approaches to solving one problem. This is the competition between twin jet engines and four turboprop engines.

The C-390 does not have – and likely never will generate – the economies-of-scale behind the C-130. But Embraer took a key step in making the C-390 relatively cost-effective in spite of it being a new platform. It was through the section of two IAE V2500-E5s instead of turboprop engines.

The IAE V2500 is among the powerplant options of the Airbus A320. Thus, the engine benefits from a huge production run spanning thousands of units. Thus, many potential C-390 operators will, in some way, have a set up to support the C-390 (via their airlines’ A320s) in place already. If not, then the cost of establishing that maintenance and support set up should be relatively feasible thanks the engine’s extensive adoption, thus finding the requisite expertise, ground support equipment, and parts should not be difficult.

Being an airliner engine, the V2500 is also marketed as a quiet and fuel-efficient powerplant that provides significant range. Not only is this important from an operating cost standpoint, but this can also factor into the C-390’s dual role as a tanker-transport by providing efficient fuel management.

A military airlifter with the qualities of an airliner offers a unique advantage. First, the C-390 offers the lift capacity to ferry heavy equipment. Second, it has the efficiency of an airliner. So, if one wants to expand their air logistics network and leverage airliner-type scalability, the C-390 could be an intriguing fit, at least in theory. While the engine may not be an issue, the C-390’s durability to withstand heavy utilization still remains to be seen, as does Embraer’s ability to control the cost of spare parts. If Embraer is able to bring the efficiency and maintainability of airliners to the C-390, it could have a stronger case than the Hercules, at least if the criteria centered on expanding military air logistics at the lowest cost.

On the other hand, the C-130J-30 offers unique benefits of its own. For example, the C-130J-30 has a much shorter takeoff distance of 1,003 m at maximum load (compared to the C-390’s 1,524 m at full load). The C-130J-30 – and Hercules series at large – has a proven track record in terms of hot-and-high performance, operating from unprepared airstrips, and, generally, real-world operational history. If an air force wanted to build out its special operations capability, for example, it would be better served by the C-130J-30.

Competitors or Complementary?

Embraer is actively working to expand its marketing efforts for the C-390. It signed a deal delegating BAE Systems to promote the C-390 in the Gulf Arab market. Likewise, Embraer has ongoing campaigns in Egypt, Greece, India, Rwanda, South Africa, and Sweden.

While the focus has been on competing with the C-130J-30 to replace legacy Hercules aircraft, there might be another – and potentially bigger – market: complementing the C-130J-30 (and Airbus A400M). Basically, Embraer need not play down the Hercules’ strengths; instead, it could point at the potential fact that the C-130J-30 may not be the most economical way to expand one’s airlifting capabilities, especially in terms of connecting their main operating bases, rapidly allocating assets (like radars, munitions, small/medium-sized helicopters, spare parts, etc.), and diversifying their logistics mix.

India, for example, is a newer Hercules operator. However, it also has a requirement for a workhorse air-lifter to support the bulk of its air logistics needs. This new airlifter can replace the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft as both a cargo lifter and tactical tanker (to support its Tejas Mk1A fleet). Others, like some NATO countries, might need an economical asset to connect their expeditionary/overseas bases with regular supplies and support. A similar case could be made to countries flying the Airbus A400M.

Interestingly, Airbus is studying the potential development of a new airlifter that would sit between the C-130 and A400M in terms of size. In effect, this airlifter would compete in the same space as the C-390 in terms of size, though the configuration may be different in that it might leverage turboprops. It would be worth seeing if Embraer can insert itself to meet that requirement, especially among a key Airbus partner (e.g., Germany), so as to preclude the development of such an aircraft.

Worth Pursuing for Pakistan?

Pakistan is another country that would benefit from adding the C-390 to its fleet, even though it operates the C-130B/E/H. Though it is acquiring second-hand C-130H aircraft from Belgium, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is still dealing with aging airframes. The operating costs will escalate and, potentially, the PAF could look to preserve its Hercules aircraft. Thus, finding another platform to share the bulk of the logistics load, especially during peacetime and between main operating bases.

In addition, the PAF may be looking to modernize its AAR/IFR capability by moving away from the Ilyushin IL-78. While it does not have as much fuel capacity as a dedicated tanker like the A330 MRTT, for example, the C-390’s refueling capabilities could be sufficient for the PAF. The PAF is not worried about extending the range of its fighters so that they can fly across the Arabian Sea; rather, it needs a solution to increase the station time of tactical fighters or extend the range of jets that are armed with munitions in place of external fuel pods. For this situation, scalability through numbers matters the most, but the PAF does not have the resources to field large numbers of single-role special mission aircraft. Thus, gaining one platform to cover both tactical refueling and air logistics could be a logical step.

Each C-390 has an all-in cost of $160 million to $180 million USD. This includes the cost of the aircraft plus its spare parts, training, and ground support equipment. It would appear that Embraer is pricing the C-390 around the range of the C-130J-30. So, if the PAF were to ever pursue a net-new logistics aircraft, it would look at spending around $150 million to $200 million per unit. However, with C-390 production in its early stages, the PAF also has the flexibility to order the aircraft in incremental batches of two or three units at a time. If the PAF enters the C-390 conversation, it would be to replace its IL-78 aircraft in the MRTT role.

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