Lockheed, Airbus ‘Fight It Out’ For Multi-Billion Indian Aircraft Deal; Embraer ‘Scores Goal’ With Mahindra Contract

The race to supply Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) to the Indian Air Force (IAF) to replace the fleet of aging An-32s has heated up as Brazilian firm Embraer Defense & Security and Indian company Mahindra join hands to manufacture the C-390 Millennium multi-mission aircraft in India.

The other companies in the fray are the US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin with its C-130 J Super Hercules and European Airbus Defense and Space with its A-400 M aircraft. Lockheed Martin also has the advantage as the C-130J is already in the IAF’s fleet.

The IAF operates 12 Super Hercules for tactical airlifting.

Embraer has so far supplied eight jets to India for VVIP travel and use as airborne early warning and control aircraft.

This gives Embraer and Lockheed an advantage over Airbus in the deal, which is expected to be huge as the IAF is looking to induct 40-80 aircraft in line with the Indian government’s Make in India initiative.

The IAF is looking for a new transport aircraft in the 18 to 30-tonne cargo-carrying capacity range.

In the request for information for the MTA, the IAF has asked the foreign vendors to provide a general estimate of the cost of aircraft and associated equipment for a batch of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft. The C-390 can carry a payload of 26 tonnes compared to the C-130J’s 20 tonnes and A-400 M’s 37 tonnes.

The IAF has asked OEMs to furnish information about the scope of technology transfer; methods to enhance indigenization and to set up a dedicated manufacturing line, including design, integration, and manufacturing processes in India; capability to undertake indigenous manufacture of systems, subsystems, components, and spares; and making India a regional or global hub for manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of the equipment.

The prolonged standoff with China has underscored the information on military transport aircraft. After the Galwan clash in 2020, India deployed its transport fleet to ferry over 68,000 additional troops, along with nearly 90 tanks and over 300 infantry combat vehicles, into the icy heights of Ladakh.

The procurement is expected to involve technology transfer and setting up a manufacturing line in the country for high-level indigenization. Hence, the collaboration between Embraer and Mahindra. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed at the Brazilian Embassy in New Delhi.

Announcing the MoU, President and CEO of Embraer Defense & Security Bosco da Costa Junior said the company will “jointly pursue” the MTA program with Mahindra. He reiterated the commitment to India’s ambitions for ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (Self-reliant India). The two giants will now chalk out the industrialization plan for the project.

Vinod Sahay, President of the Aerospace & Defence Sector and Member of the Group Executive Board, Mahindra, said, “The C-390 Millennium is the most advanced military airlifter in the market, and we believe that this partnership will not only bolster the operational prowess of the Indian Air Force but also provide an efficient industrialization solution that aligns seamlessly with the objectives of Make in India.”

The MoU was signed by Embraer Defense & Security and Mahindra Defence Systems, a 100 percent owned subsidiary of Mahindra, which focuses on armored transport and security-related products, including electronics.

The C-390 Millenium is a multi-mission, twin-engine, jet-powered, tactical transport aircraft. It entered the Brazilian Air Force in 2019. Since then, it has been inducted into the Brazilian Air Force, Portuguese Air Force, Hungarian Air Force, Austrian Air Force, Czech Republic Air Force, and Royal Netherland Air Force. South Korea opted for it in December 2023.

C-390 vs C-130J

The Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules, introduced in 1999, has four turboprop engines and is mostly used as a military transport aircraft. Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules had received a complete upgrade with the C-130J that contained new engines, a flying deck, and other equipment.

Royal Netherlands Air Force chose the C-390 Millenium over the C-130 J in 2020; the Brazilian aircraft could complete a mission with fewer aircraft than the competition because of its speed and load capacity.

The KC-390 (cruising at 470kt true airspeed) is a lot faster than the C-130J (cruise 248kt) and has a high operational ceiling (36,0000 ft compared to 28,000ft of the C-130J). The range of the KC-390 is a little less (1,750 miles compared to the C-130J’s 2,100 miles).

According to Embraer, a fleet of six KC-390s flying 1,350nm (2,500km), round trips could deliver 500 tonnes and 1,000 passengers in less than two days. The company says that is 40 percent faster than the C-130J.

C-130Js landing Garuds on Lucknow-Agra Expressway (Photo: MoD)

The C-390, the most modern military transport aircraft in the market, can carry more payload (26 t) compared to other medium-sized military transport aircraft and flies 870 km/h (470 knots).

It can perform a wide range of missions, such as transporting and dropping cargo and troops, medical evacuation, search and rescue, aerial firefighting, and humanitarian missions, operating on temporary or unpaved runways such as packed earth, soil, and gravel.

The aircraft configured with air-to-air refueling equipment, with the designation KC-390, has already proven its aerial refueling capacity both as a tanker and as a receiver, in this case by receiving fuel from another KC-390 using pods installed under the wings.

Compared to the C-130J, the KC-390 is 15 percent faster, carries 18 percent heavier cargo, and costs 41 percent less. Despite having a 15 percent lower range than the C-130J, the KC-390 includes aerial refueling as a standard feature (only a few specialized sub-variants of the C-130 feature an aerial refueling capability.

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Replacing Russian An-32

The IAF is looking to replace the upgraded An-32, which is about 100 in number. These transport aircraft will complete 44 years of service in 2031-32 when their phasing out is planned.

The IAF had initially planned to procure MTA under a joint developmental project with Russia. The two countries had inked a pact for the co-development of the aircraft in 2012.

India would have bought 45 aircraft, and Russia would have purchased around 100. The deal, however, fell through in 2016 after the two countries failed to reach an agreement about the engine and design of the aircraft.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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