Brazil To Cut KC-390 Airlifter Order

 - May 31, 2021, 6:20 AM
The FAB’s four KC-390s delivered to date rest between missions on the Ala 2 ramp at Anápolis. (Photo: Sgt Bianca/FAB)

The Força Aérea Brasileira (FAB, Brazilian air force) is reducing its order for the Embraer KC-390 Millenium airlifter. The decision, which was revealed in a notification on May 26, is driven by budgetary constraints that have arisen as a result of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Brazil has been one of the hardest-hit nations by the health crisis, and the cost has caused “direct limitations on the strategic projects of the armed forces” according to the notification. The number of KC-390s on order—which stands at 28—“has proved to be superior to the budgetary reality of the Force, both for acquisition and for logistical support over time.”

No details of the final number were given, but the FAB is seeking a production rate of two aircraft per year. The FAB currently has four KC-390s in service with 1° Grupo de Transporte de Tropa (1°GTT “Esquadrão Zeus”), part of Ala (wing) 2 at Anápolis. Three more are scheduled for delivery this year, with three or four more aircraft to be delivered annually until 2027. If the schedule remains the same, the implication is that the final fleet could number fewer than 20.

On a more positive note, the FAB has commented that its KC-390s are performing excellently in early operations, posting “exceptional rates of availability and dispatchability, resulting in a much higher capacity in volume and agility in the transportation of cargo and personnel.” Ironically, the excellent availability exhibited so far has played its part in the decision to reduce the order.

Inevitably the decision is a blow to Embraer, coming in the wake of the break-up of its partnership with Boeing. The company has received two export orders for the KC-390, from Portugal (five aircraft) and Hungary (two). In the KC-390 notification, the FAB reaffirmed its consideration of Embraer as a strategic partner, and its participation in joint projects concerning unmanned aerial vehicles and a new light transport aircraft. Embraer also affirmed the strategic partnership in a company statement, while reinforcing "its commitment to the C-390 Millenium project ... as well as its belief in the export potential of this product."

In the meantime, the Brazilian defense ministry has authorized the rapid acquisition of two strategic transport and refueling aircraft. Initiated in mid-May, Project KC-X3 has been justified following the nation’s response to the Covid pandemic, which was hampered by the lack of large aircraft to transport medical supplies to the Amazon region. The FAB’s most recent large jet transport, a leased Boeing 767, was withdrawn in 2018, leaving the Covid supply burden to fall on the first few KC-390s to be delivered and the C-130 Hercules.

As well as its transport requirements, the FAB also needs a large aircraft for refueling its forthcoming Gripen fighter fleet, especially to support overseas deployments. Attempts to provide a large tanker/transport have so far been fruitless: two Israeli-modified Boeing 767 tanker/transports were on order to replace the FAB’s four elderly Boeing KC-707s that were retired in 2013 but the deal came to nothing. In January, a request to buy a pair of used Airbus A330s for transport duties was not approved.

For Project KC-X3 the most likely candidates are the A330 and Boeing 767, although given the extra cost of full military-spec aircraft versus second-hand commercial aircraft, the tanker element of the requirement may be eliminated.