Embraer's downright exciting KC-390 tanker-transport has made the leap, or roll really, into the public eye for the very first time. With capabilities loosely analogous to the venerable C-130, but offering the economy and speed of twin turbofan engines, the KC-390 may become a real contender in the lucrative medium air transport marketplace.
The KC-390's higher operating altitude, greater payload and much faster speed already gives it a lead over the present day market dominator, the Lockheed C-130J, and orders are already migrating its way. Commitments for 60 of the jets are on the books, from countries including Argentina (6), Brazil (28), Chile (6), Colombia (12), the Czech Republic (2) and Portugal (6) and other air forces are eyeing the aircraft very closely. To sweeten the international KC-390 offering, and to alleviate 'new manufacturer' concerns, Lockheed's main competitor, Boeing, has signed on to take care of sales, servicing and training for potential North American and European users, which brings incredible clout to Embraer's largest aircraft project to date.
Another interesting point is that the KC-390 was clean-sheet designed as a transport capable of short and rough field operations, as well as acting as a aerial refueling tanker. In other words, the tanking feature was not an afterthought mission that was added later, as it is with so many other tanker aircraft designs. Thus the jet can refuel many types of aircraft over a large flight envelope, and fighter aircraft won't have to slow way down in order to suckle from either of her refueling drogues.
It will be exciting to see how the KC-390 progresses into the testing phase as the program has implications far greater than just selling a new type of jet to military customers. Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer has grown dramatically in the commercial marketplace over the last two decades, with its popular regional jet aircraft lines, and it has become a serious contender in the business jet and military aircraft upgrade domain as well. Thus, this ambitious military project, if successful, will lead to other even larger projects, especially if product support is satisfactory for the type's new government operators.
For Embraer, KC-390 is really as much a business development delivery vehicle as it is a cargo hauler. It gets Embraer's foot in the door with many militaries and governments around the globe, and if successful, it will provide the company much easier access for the sale of other related and non-related products alike.
The KC-390 itself may also morph quickly as it matures. If it lives up to its cost effectiveness and off the shelf commonality claims (its engines are from the Airbus A320 for instance) then a commercial cargo variant and even an airliner variant of the jet may be on the way. Although, the ultimate accomplishment for the Embraer-Boeing KC-390 team would be to call the Department of Defense a customer, something that is quite unlikely but still not outside the realm of possibility.
Even if 'big' Air Force and 'big' Navy don't purchase the KC-390, Special Operations Command could, which would break an incredibly long lasting medium transport monopoly held by Lockheed's quad-turboprop powered C-130 Hercules. Some aerospace commentators have even suggested that it would be worth selling any US Government operator the KC-390, even at a large loss, just to break the C-130's better part of a century's long hold on the US marketplace.
There is little doubt that Embraer's design appears to be versatile and capable on paper, now we will have to see if this South American hauler has what it takes to wrestle the C-130 down a few thousand feet from its perch as thee aircraft that bridges the gap between strategic and tactical military air transport.
Photos via Embraer
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com