Fighter Buy Tests Brazil's Will


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Fighter Buy Tests Brazil's Will

Skeptics Recall Past Canceled Aircraft Programs
By Antonie Boessenkool And pierre tran
Published: 20 April 2009

RIO DE JANEIRO - A $2.2 billion tender for modern fighter aircraft is emblematic of Brazil's drive to acquire the military punch and technological base to match its ambitions as a regional actor looking to play a larger role on the world stage.
The FX-2 contest to buy a first batch of 36 multimission warplanes has narrowed to the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Dassault Aviation Rafale and Saab Gripen NG. Lockheed Martin's F-16, the world's most popular export fighter, didn't make the cut.
The latest search for fighters comes after the FX-1 initiative fizzled several years ago without purchasing new aircraft.
Some skeptics at the Latin America Aerospace and Defense (LAAD) show suggested the FX-2 program may discover the same fate.
"The Brazilian Air Force has, easily, over the last 10, 12 years, been in a constant mode of modernizing their aircraft," said one U.S. defense executive and a long-time observer of the military business in Latin America. "During that period, there have been a number of new aircraft competitions. And each ... for one reason or another has tended to become delayed and then the program gets canceled."
Brazil also has a number of defense modernization programs ongoing - especially for the Navy, like new nuclear submarines - that are stressing resources. When combined with a worldwide economic crisis, it could create delays, the executive added.
"You have more systems competing for less dollars, or so it would seem in this kind of environment, which could lead to yet again a re-examination of the fighter competition," he said.
On the strategic front, Brazil lacks natural enemies and money is tight, a second U.S. executive with experience in Brazilian military aviation said.
Operationally, the Air Force last year took delivery of the last of 12 Mirage 2000 strike fighters bought from the French Air Force, and the Navy has ordered a modernization of a small fleet of A-4 Skyhawks for the Sao Paulo aircraft carrier.
Buying sophisticated fighters may be an overreach for what some see as the Air Force's main mission of policing its domestic territory and waters rather than flying combat missions.
On the other hand, some say the government will complete the competition. This time, Brazil has a national defense strategy drafted by Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, a former lawyer and judge, which calls for development through technology transfer and industrial cooperation. And crucially, there is money.
Brazil has the world's seventh-largest foreign currency reserves and recently went to the G-20 summit, uncharacteristically bringing a cash contribution to the International Monetary Fund's new stabilization fund.
Banks are willing to lend to the government, a French defense executive based here said. There are reserves of offshore oil, minerals, including iron ore, and that increasingly precious commodity, fresh water.
As the economic slowdown took hold, the government trimmed general spending, but Jobim pushed for lifting defense equipment funds to $5.6 billion this year from $3.6 billion last year. Its defense budget was $20.2 billion.
Protection of natural resources, including offshore oil, and surveillance of the vast Amazonian basin require planes with powerful capabilities of deterrence, the fighter proponents say.
"I think there are a number of differences this time around," said Bob Kemp, marketing and sales director at Gripen International. "The MoD says we're looking for programs, not products. In the previous FX, it was very much looking for an existing product that was on the market.
"I think the political will has changed. The commitment that was made to a submarine and helicopter program toward the end of last year tells me that there is a political will to really do something about investment in the defense industry and to grow the defense forces' capability in Brazil."
Brazil signed a deal Dec. 23 to buy four conventional attack submarines plus technical help for a nuclear-powered sub from DCNS and 50 EC725 helicopters from Eurocopter.
The Rivals
The oddity in the aircraft short list is the Next Generation Gripen, an improved version of the single-engine aircraft developed by Saab, while the F/A-18 and Rafale are twin-engine strike fighters in service respectively with the U.S. and French forces.
The Gripen offers a lower cost of ownership, its supporters argue, and Saab executives appealed to Brazil's desire to acquire technology, saying the company would make offset investments equal to the size of the contract Brazil plans to award this year.
Saab is trying to displace French and U.S. companies in its fighter strategy for Brazil, India and South Africa, Kemp said.
For nations not aligned with NATO, Saab's strategy is to "move the French, who dominated this market over the last 20, 30 years [with] the Mirage and Jaguar, with Gripen fighters," he said. "We believe that we have got a unique opportunity to succeed in these nations because they're looking for independence.
"And this is an area that we offer something quite unique because Sweden itself is an independent nation, and we recognize the value of controlling your own destiny." Kemp said, "If you want to do something different and control your own destiny, there is only one choice and that is Sweden."
Saab has completed 78 test flights with the NG Gripen, Kemp said. The firm has received nine requests for proposals or for information on the Gripen from countries worldwide.
U.S. Official Support
Boeing's offer, meanwhile, received backing from one of the top U.S. military commanders in Latin America.
"We in [U.S.] Southern Command fully endorse and fully recommend to our Brazilian colleagues that they select the Super Hornet," Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears, deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, said at the LAAD show. "The U.S. government has assured and approved everything in this package for technology transfer to Brazil."
Bob Gower, Boeing's Super Hornet program director, pledged that Boeing's offer would enhance the Brazilian aircraft industry and improve other areas of the country's industry.
"This is about harnessing what's here and helping it to grow and flourish," he said.
The fighter program would provide multiple opportunities for Brazilian industry collaboration in military and commercial aircraft development, homeland security, air traffic management, space and satellite development, support services and advanced programs.
"For Brazil, it means gaining access to leading-edge technology," he said, including the Super Hornet's active electronically scanned array radar.
As of April 15, 389 Super Hornets had been delivered to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, "all on time or ahead of schedule," Gower said. Because the aircraft is in full production, "this is a very low-risk program for Brazil."
Independence, Deterrence and Longevity
The French government and industry have rallied behind the messages of independence, deterrence and staying power in efforts to secure a sale of the Rafale.
Junior Defense Minister Jean-Marie Boeckel visited the LAAD exhibition to fly the French flag. He was flanked by the French ambassador, an Air Force flag officer and a senior official from the Délégation Générale pour l'Armement procurement office.
The Rafale International marketing team produced two glossy brochures for the Brazilian campaign - one for a general readership, pushing the themes of independence, deterrence and longevity, and another giving a technical overview of the Rafale's performance characteristics. Under the heading "The road to independence," French industry hopes to persuade the authorities that buying its plane ensures sovereignty over technology.
A local assembly of the plane, which requires extensive technology transfer, is possible, a Dassault executive said. Plus, the Rafale's 100 percent French content means no U.S. approvals are needed for technology transfer, the executive added.
French industry also is confident it can meet Brazil's requirement for 100 percent industrial offset "without major difficulty," he said.
The deterrence power is offered in what the French team sees as Rafale's technological superiority, with two engines giving a safety margin and equipment designed for long-range detection, interception and strike, data fusion and interoperability.
French industry seeks to convince Brazilian officials its companies are solid and can assure support for the 25- to 30-year life of the Rafale.
A rallying of ministerial and industry efforts behind the Rafale campaign suggests lessons have been learned from the failure to sell the aircraft to Morocco because of a lack of coordination among the various actors. Rabat bought the Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter.
For Brazil, the new fighter buy is all about nation-building.
"The FX-2 program has a basic requirement: technology transfer from the winner company," Jobim said. "A good fighter alone is not enough; we need a good fighter with technologies that are relevant for the country." ■

Christopher P. Cavas contributed to this report.