Two key competitions could see Brazil's Embraer finally achieving its long-pursued goal of breaking into the defence market in a major way

After several false starts, Embraer's emerging defence portfolio is finally on the verge of major breakthroughs in two key competitions. Meanwhile, the company has been picking up momentum across a range of new defence-related products.

The Brazilian air force and a joint programme by the US Army and US Navy are both nearing major aircraft decisions. Embraer has teamed with Dassault Aviation to offer the modified Mirage 2000BR for the long-awaited Brazilian FX-BR fighter programme, which has also attracted bids with the Lockheed Martin F-16, Saab/BAE Systems JAS39 Gripen and the SukhoiSu-35. After a series of delays, a final decision is expected in late March or early April, according to local reports. The Mirage is widely viewed to be the leading candidate, although some reports indicate that the air force's preference is for the Sukhoi, followed by the Gripen. The FX-BR is to replace ageing fleets of Alenia/Aermacchi/Embraer AMX, Northrop F-5 and Mirage III aircraft in the air force inventory.


Meanwhile, US officials are in final source selection for the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) programme, which may include up to 150 new aircraft to replace the US Army's intelligence-gathering RC-7s and RC-12s and the navy's EP-3s. Lockheed Martin has selected the Embraer ERJ-145 as the airborne platform, and is competing against a Northrop Grumman proposal based on the Gulfstream G450 business jet. A victory for Embraer could establish a foothold in the North American defence market, including a new final-assembly facility in Jacksonville, Florida. Embraer's participation in Lockheed Martin's bid, however, is limited to delivering a green platform, leaving it shut out of the potential benefits of the programme's technology development requirements.

Embraer hopes to adapt more of its commercial products for defence applications. In addition to a host of ERJ-145-based surveillance roles, the ERJ-135 is being offered as a VIP transport for government dignitaries.

Embraer has pursued the defence market for several years, with mixed results. It started forging industrial and government partnerships in the mid-1990s to begin entering the market. The move towards defence was already advanced when the commercial market crisis of late 2001 underscored Embraer's drive to diversify its revenue base, says Anastacio Katsonos, director of defence market strategy.

In 1999, Embraer chief executive Mauricio Botelho said that the defence market should account for 30% of all aircraft sales by this year. Company officials later revised the five-year goal downward to 25%. In 2003, defence sales accounted for only 10% of the company's revenues. In February, Katsonos further trimmed Embraer's new five-year objective for the defence market to 20%. This downward shift is partly a reflection of the runaway growth of Embraer's regional jet business, which has made it harder for defence sales to keep pace. The results are also lower due to the slow progress of several Brazilian defence acquisitions, particularly the FX-BR programme.

Additionally, there have been disappointing sales of the Super Tucano/ALX turboprop trainer and light attack aircraft. Embraer had expected a market to emerge largely among its South American neighbours, perhaps fuelling export orders for more than 200 aircraft. But the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68C-powered aircraft is still looking for export customers on a continent where defence budgets have been upset in recent years by severe economic instability. Despite the slow progress, says Katsonos, there remains a "high interest in South America" for the ALX. Embraer maintains that aircraft sales could beat exports of the baseline Tucano, which has been delivered to 15 nations. The most likely buyer remains Colombia, but talks on a potential deal have been postponed for several months.

Brazil's SIVAM Amazon surveillance and protection programme originally spawned the requirement for a turboprop interceptor able to operate from remote airfields with little infrastructure, including unpaved runways made slick by the Amazon's usual daily rainfall. For this, Brazil has ordered 76 ALXs, with options for a further 23. The Super Tucano features a 1,600shp (1,200kW) engine, providing twice the propulsion capability of the baseline Tucano.

Entering service

Embraer handed over the first of the A/AT-29 ALX fleet to the Brazilian air force on 18 December 2003 during a ceremony at the company's site in Gavia Peixoto. The start of operational flying for the ALX fleet begins mid-year. The aircraft has infrared sensors to penetrate fog and smoke, plus a datalink to an ERJ-145-derived airborne early warning and control platform designated the R-99A.

ALX weapon loads for border tracking and anti-drug trafficking missions include two machine guns, guided or unguided bombs and MAA-1 Piranha short-range air-to-air missile. The ALX canopy is bullet-proof and the aircraft has a missile warning system linked to a chaff and flare dispenser.

Another drag on Embraer's presence in the defence market has been delays to the air force's F-5BR modernisation programme, which is intended to add 15 years of life to Brazil's fleet. That work is only now starting. The first upgraded Brazilian F-5 flew last November. Improvements include a new multimode radar that has filled the space and weight formerly occupied by one of the onboard guns. Major system modifications are being performed by Israel's Elbit, while Embraer has responsibility for the airframe changes.

Katsonos meanwhile calls the two-seat, subsonic AMX-T attack aircraft the "most important technology development programme in Embraer history". This modification programme was launched after the Kosovo air campaign in 1999, which revealed reliability problems and outdated cockpit systems for Italy's AMX fleet. The AMX-T features a new avionics suite, updated self-protection systems and carriage for laser-guided weapons.

Despite its prominence in Embraer's defence market strategy, the company owns only a 29.7% stake in the AMX. Italy's Alenia is responsible for 46.5% of the aircraft followed by a 23.8% contribution from Aermacchi.

After orders from Brazil and Italy, the domestic programme got its first export customer last May when Venezuela signed an order for 12 aircraft to replace its RockwellT-2D Buckeye lead-in fighter trainer fleet. The deal has yet to be finalised




Source: Flight International