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Brazil's Fighter Sweepstakes

Can the U.S. Compete?

12:00 AM, May 15, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Rio de Janeiro

Brazilians have a self-deprecating joke about the chronic inability of their country to somehow merge its vast natural resources and technological potential--creating the type of synergism that would make the country a major player on the international stage. "Brazil is a nation of the future," they say--"and always will be."

One of the recent examples validating this cynicism is how the now nine-year process for Brazil to purchase a fleet of new fighter aircraft began.

When the Força Aérea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force or FAB) originally announced a competition to purchase 12-24 new fighter aircraft in 2001 there were plenty of skeptics as to how serious the intentions of the Brazilian armed forces were. The initial budget for the program's initial twelve fighter aircraft ($700 million) seemed inadequate. There were even more questions about whether or not a follow-on order would materialize beyond these original twelve air frames. Twelve was a number large enough for national day parades fly-bys and other public air show demonstrations, but not a sufficient air defense capability for a country the size of Brazil.

Thus, when the competition was shut down in 2004 there were not many who were surprised. The new president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (known by his official nickname as simply "Lula"), had assumed office the year before after a populist campaign that had promised more attention and spending on Brazil's domestic and social problems. This meant that high technology and heavy industrial programs--especially those linked to defense spending--were going to fall off the government's list of top priorities for the time being. For the country's aerospace sector it seemed another case of once again proving Brazil could not become that "nation of the future."

However, after Lula's election to a second term, he had achieved a number of the goals he had set out to fulfill. The most significant of which was that in January 2008, Brazil became a net foreign creditor--following decades of being the world's largest emerging market debtor nation.

In 2008, the FAB announced that the F-X fighter buy (now called F-X2 since it is the second time around for the tender) was back on again. Lula made it clear that--unlike the previous competition--that this was not just a matter of buying new military hardware off the shelf. F-X2 and other new procurements are to become national programs, focused more on transferring innovation and state-of-the-art capabilities to the nation's economy than meeting the requirements of the armed forces.

In line with those ambitions the F-X2 program's budget is now $2.2 billion--more than three times the original 2001 procurement--and the first tranche of aircraft to be procured will be 36 current-generation fighters. Moreover, the total program is to include several follow-on buys that will total 100-120 airplanes over the next decade, which will make it the second-largest export sale of combat aircraft in the world.

For the FAB a replacement airplane cannot come too soon. At any one time 37 per cent of the FAB's 719-plane fleet is grounded due to either problems associated with the age of the air frames or problems created by the generally extreme climatic conditions of tropical Brazil. The most modern aircraft in service now are 12 used Dassault Mirage 2000 models purchased from the French Armée de l'Air (ALA) in 2006 as stop-gap solution to the growing obsolescence of the FAB. These aircraft are a quarter century old.

Part of what has prompted Brazil's defense modernization drive are growing concerns about its neighbor to the north, Venezuela, which has been arming itself with some of the most modern Russian weaponry available. President Hugo Chavez, a good compañero of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has opted to purchase weapons from Moscow with significant offensive potential. Chavez--in the eyes of Brazilian defense planners--deliberately passed up cheaper and shorter-ranged Russian fighter aircraft and other systems that would be perfectly adequate if just defending the air space of Venezuela was all the Latin American strongman had in mind.

Given the change in the security situation on the South American continent, Brazil has now embarked on a new National Plan for Strategic Defense Policy of which the purchase of new combat aircraft are a major component. Three current-generation fighter aircraft--the US Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, France's Dassault Rafale, and the Saab JAS-39 from Sweden--are now left in the running. A winner will be announced in October.