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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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At one time U.S. industry would have been a shoo-in for a sale of this kind in Brazil. Older models of U.S. aircraft have been used by several air forces on the continent for decades. Both Venezuela (before Chavez came to power) and Chile (more than a decade later) purchased the Lockheed Martin (LM) F-16.

But, South America's largest nation also has--despite growing military cooperation with the U.S.--the desire to maintain its neutrality. They are also keen to garner as many spin-offs from this program in terms of technology transfer to Brazil's aerospace sector.

It is not widely recognised outside of the community of aerospace writers and analysts, but Brazil can boast of having the third largest aerospace company in the world (after Boeing and the Airbus consortium), Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica S.A--more commonly known as Embraer. Aside from a highly successful business of designing and building commercial aircraft and business jets, Embraer have a full line of defense products and have recently begun the full-scale development of a new twin-engined, jet powered military transport/airborne refuelling tanker aircraft, the KC-390.

Lula's charge to the defense planners in charge of the F-X2 program is to utilize this effort to support the recovery of the "capability of our armed forces and the technological edge we once had in certain fields." In order for this to occur, it goes without saying that Embraer will be an integral part of the F-X2 program, to include participating in the development and manufacture of a variant of one of the three remaining aircraft in the competition that fits Brazil's requirements.

Sitting in a briefing room at Embraer's corporate headquarters in S o José dos Campos, the company's chief defense program executive, Orlando Neto, illustrated why the U.S. now holds such a poor hand in markets like Brazil. The U.S. company Boeing, he explained, "offer a stable product in the F/A-18E/F. The program's NRE [Non-Recurring Engineering research and development costs] have largely already been amortized. The aircraft is already being flown in service, so its operational capability is not an unknown."

But, as he specifically pointed out, "the weakness of the U.S. bid is in the transfer of technology. Any Releases of technology have to be requested to the US Congress, which does not fit with the FAB's requirement for autonomous configuration and operation."

The two European bidders, in comparison, are not only more willing to share technology with Embraer and other Brazilian defense enterprises, but they are also prepared to integrate third-nation weaponry onto their platform. Saab is integrating a full complement of NATO and non-NATO weaponry onto the JAS-39, including Israeli and South African systems, and France's Dassault is prepared to do the same with the Rafale so that a customer would not be required to operate only French-made weapons.

What should concern those in Washington looking to the future of our own hemisphere is that a nation with potential of Brazil will see better future prospects in being partners with Europe rather than America. It is more than just simple "anti-Gringoism," that is driving Brazil into the arms of nations on the other side of the Atlantic. It is a technology export control regime in Washington that is out of step with the realities of today's international defense market and renders U.S. defense industry increasingly uncompetitive. It also makes potential customers for our fighters, tanks, missiles, etc. increasingly wary that we will leave them high and dry when it comes time to share essential software source code and other technologies that they would need to make their own modifications to the weapon systems they have purchased from the U.S.

In the previous quarter century the U.S. government recouped billions of dollars by exporting F-16, F/A-18 and F-15 model fighter aircraft to dozens of countries. This was a boon to the U.S. taxpayer, and at several points in each program's history export sales allowed the defense contractors to keep production lines open instead of closing them down or "gapping" the manufacturing and laying off thousands of aerospace workers and engineers.