Lockheed Eyes “Biggest Ever” Indian Air Force Deals; Looks To Beat Airbus, Embraer For IAF’s MTA Contract

US defense giant Lockheed Martin is engaged in a massive “battle” for the Indian Air Force’s transport and fighter jet aircraft. For the transport aircraft fleet, Airbus and Embraer are challenging Lockheed Martin for the IAF contract. 

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Indian Air Force’s (IAF) transport aircraft fleet has been the country’s real workhorse. They have played a stellar role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) within the country and regions far and beyond and earned global appreciation.

They also play a critical role in the intra and inter-theater movements of the Indian armed forces and the sustenance of the Indian Army in the Himalayas, both in the north and northeast.

The fleet has been the IAF’s logistics backbone. For nearly 40 years, the Ilyushin Il-76MD and the Antonov An-32 aircraft were the main workhorses. The induction of the C-17 Globemaster and C-130J-30 increased India’s global reach and payload capacity.

India is fast becoming the third-largest economy. Its global stature and commitments require that the IAF transport fleet capability be enhanced. Older aircraft will eventually retire. The selection and induction processes take time.

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Therefore, the IAF has started looking for a new transport aircraft with an 18 to 30-ton cargo-carrying capacity. This mid-range covers the payload zone between IL-76 and An-32. The contenders showing interest include Embraer’s C-390, Lockheed Martin’s C130J, and the Airbus A400M Atlas.

IAF Current Transport/Cargo Fleet

The IAF has a 17-aircraft fleet of Ilyushin Il-76MDs with a load capacity of 48 tons. They began inducting in early 1985. The aircraft conducted its first flight in 1971. A popular design, nearly 970, were produced, and they still have takers.

The IAF bought 125 Antonov An-32 aircraft with a 6.7-ton payload capacity. The aircraft first flew in 1976 and joined the IAF in 1984. 105 are still in service. The fleet has been upgraded recently. Both these aircraft have seen nearly 40 years of service with the IAF.

IAF also bought nearly a dozen 77.5-ton payload Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, deliveries for which began in June 2013. IAF inducted 12 four-engine Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules turboprop military transport aircraft with nearly 19-ton payload capacity.

IAF’s 56 HS-748 aircraft (max 5-ton payload) are being replaced by 56 Airbus C-295MW aircraft (7 to 9-ton load) in about a decade.  Indian armed forces and Coast Guard also operate the Dornier 228 (19 passengers) in large numbers.

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Indo-Russian MTA Project

The United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) of Russia and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of India began a joint venture in 2009 to build a Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA).  Each side pitched US$300 million for the project. The aircraft was intended to replace the IAF’s Antonov An-32 transport aircraft.

India would acquire 45 aircraft, and Russia 105. Both governments agreed to produce the aircraft for their respective armed forces and for friendly third-party countries and to develop a civilian variant of the MTA in the form of a 100-seater passenger airplane, for which HAL will be the lead partner and principal integrator. The Indian portion of the MTA’s serial production would take place at HAL’s Transport Aircraft Division in Kanpur.

In October 2012, HAL signed a preliminary design contract with UAC, stipulating that joint design work would begin in Moscow, involving 30 Indian engineers as well as UAC’s design team. The aircraft was being called an Il-214. In February 2015, India cancelled its existing international tender on medium-lift military transport aircraft, formalizing its intent to purchase the joint MTA.

The 20-ton payload twin-engine aircraft was an Il-76 lookalike but smaller in size. Its maximum range was expected to be 2,500 kilometers. In January 2016, it was announced that, due to technical reasons, India’s HAL would no longer be involved in the project and that Russia was proceeding with the project alone.

The aircraft designated as Ilyushin Il-276 is now being developed by UAC. It is designed to perform regular transport duties and also to deploy up to 150 paratrooper soldiers or up to 20 tons of cargo. According to the Russian press, the Il-276 is expected to begin flight testing in 2023 and deliver the first units in 2026. Ilyushin intends to achieve an annual production rate of 12 units by 2029. Russia needs around 55 aircraft initially, and induction is planned in 2026.

In February 2023, on the sidelines of the Aero India 2023 air show, a Russian delegation from Rostec held talks with Indian officials on the possibility of the joint development of the Il-276. However, India would prefer the aircraft to come with a European engine instead of a Russian engine, which is unlikely to be possible for Russia to propose.

IAF’s Requirement As Per RFI

The IAF needs a new transport aircraft with an 18 to 30-ton cargo-carrying capacity. The numbers could be significant.

The information IAF is seeking from the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) includes technical specifications, 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. Companies will have to identify local firms for a possible partnership to bid for the project.

The Request for Information (RFI) was issued in December 2022, and the submission deadline was extended till 31 March 2024. The contenders are the Airbus A-400, Lockheed Martin C-130, and Embraer C-390.

Responses have reportedly been received. The ‘Make in India’ component is part of the potential deal, along the lines of the C-295 transport aircraft.

The RFI requires that aircraft deliveries commence within 36 months of the contract signing. It seems that the actual numbers required will be spelled out later.

The vendors have been asked to provide a ‘Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) cost of aircraft and associated equipment’ for a batch of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft, respectively. The IAF could procure between 40 and 80 aircraft.

Airbus A400M Atlas

The Airbus A400M Atlas is a European four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. It is a tactical airlifter with strategic capabilities. It is sized between the C-130 and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. It can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and can use rough landing strips. In addition to its transport capabilities, the A400M can perform aerial refueling and medical evacuation when fitted with appropriate equipment.

More than 30 percent of the airplane’s structure is made of composite materials. Its carrying capacity is 37 tons, which translates to 116 fully equipped troops or paratroopers.

The range is 3,300 km with a max payload and 4,500 km with a 30-tonne payload. The tactical takeoff distance is 980 m. It can operate from short and unpaved airstrips. Typically, the aircraft will be able to carry the Indian Army’s light tank with a maximum weight of 25 tons. The service ceiling is 12,200 m (40,000 ft).

A-400 Aircraft

The aircraft made its maiden flight in December 2009. Service inductions began in 2013 with the French Air and Space Force. 124 were produced until 31 March 2024. It has 178 orders from 10 countries, with the order book going up to 2030.

Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Belgium, Turkey, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, among a few others, have placed orders for this aircraft. India has been exposed to it during air exercises in India and abroad.

Embraer C-390 Millennium

The Embraer C-390 Millennium is a medium-size, twin-engine, jet-powered military transport aircraft. It is the heaviest aircraft the company has built to date.

Work on the project began at Embraer in the mid-2000s. The E190 jetliner is similar in size to the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Embraer initially planned to launch a stretched version of the aircraft as a civilian freighter. The final military cargo variant flew in February 2015. In September 2019, the first production aircraft was delivered to the Brazilian Air Force.

With a capacity of 26 tons of payload, the aircraft can be configured to carry troops, VIP and cargo transportation, and aerial refueling tankers. 80 soldiers or 66 paratroopers with full gear and loads of up to 19 tons can be air-dropped. The aircraft’s range is 2,000 km with 26 tons and 5,020 km with 14 tons. The service ceiling is 11,000 m (36,000 ft).

Brazil and Portugal are its current customers, and potential buyers include Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Egypt, India, Rwanda, South Africa, South Korea, and Sweden.

Embraer claims that C-390 has the advantages of being a newer aircraft with the latest technology, multi-mission capability, operational flexibility, and low operating costs. Embraer and India’s Mahindra group announced collaboration on the C-390 Millennium MTA in India.

Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules

IAF is already operating the Special Operations variant of the C-130J. India is very conversant with its performance and limitations, if any. The Cargo variant need not have the special equipment required for penetration into enemy territory.

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The C-130J Super Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. The original C-130 variant was first flown in 1954, and more than 2,500 have been built. It C-130 J is a comprehensive update of the base C-130 Hercules, with new engines, flight deck, and other systems.

The C-130J is the newest version and the only model currently in production. Since the variant first flew in April 1996, over 500 C-130J aircraft have been delivered to 26 operators in 22 countries. India acquired the aircraft as part of the US Government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

The 19-ton payload could include 92 passengers or 64 airborne troops. At a max normal payload of 15.4 tons, the range is 3,300 km. With a 19-ton payload, the service ceiling is 28,000 ft (8,500 m), and the absolute ceiling is 40,386 ft (12,310 m).

Comparative Chart

Attribute Airbus A400M Embraer C-390 Lockheed C-130J
First Flight December 2009 February 2015 April 1996
Max payload 37 ton 26 ton 19 ton
Airborne Troops 116 66 64
Range with Max load 3,300 km 2,000 km 3,300 km (15.4 ton)
Ceiling 12,200 m 11,000 m 12,310 m
A U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft
File Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft. (Wikipedia)


The process will start only after acceptance of Necessity (AoN) by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) and issuance of a request for proposal (RFP). After the bids are received, will start the technical evaluation by IAF.

The aircraft will have to meet the technical specifications and operational requirements for which it is being procured. Basic and life cycle costs will be next. Another important issue will be the level of technology transfer. Also, whether the package can be laced with some accruements, such as other technologies, independent of the project.

Enhancing indigenization, setting up a dedicated manufacturing line, supporting international sales, securing spare supply chains, and making India a regional or global hub for manufacturing and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) of the equipment would be important criteria.

The IAF has to airlift not just troops but combat vehicles and other odd-sized equipment, including radars and surface-to-air guided weapons, to forward locations. Short-field landing and take-off capability will be important. The ability to operate from advanced landing grounds (ALG) with high mountains on approach paths would require steep climb and descent capability.

Undoubtedly, the competitors are good and have their own advantages. Embraer, Lockheed, and Airbus have known India well. India flies the Embraer EMB135 Legacy in the VIP squadron. DRDO Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS) is based on Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft.

Airbus and Lockheed have a long-term presence in India, including manufacturing facilities. Both these are much larger companies and can then perhaps wield greater influence.

Lockheed is the world’s largest defense contractor. It builds the F-16 wings, C-130J empennage, and more than 5,000 precision components that compose each S-92 cabin, which is 100 percent indigenous and made in India. Lockheed Martin has integrated 70 Indian suppliers into the global defense supply chain.

C-295W is an Airbus project. Airbus has a huge presence in the civil aviation sector and can provide support in that regard. Airbus Helicopters are working to become big in India.

IAF’s greatest importance remains the fighter squadron numbers where Lockheed Martin is pitching its F-21 aircraft. They are also the firm behind much sought-after F-35 stealth fighters.

The next priority is quickly obtaining additional AEW&C and FRA. The MTA is the next but important priority. India is known for long bureaucratic processes and often long-drawn delays in military acquisitions. It is time to get going, lest India be saddled with a capability gap.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is the former Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey