Brazil’s Fighter Decision: A Strategic Opportunity


by Kenneth Maxwell

Brazil will soon decide on reequipping its air force with a new generation of fighters. The decision was postponed by President Dilma Rousseff last year.

The competitors are the French Dassault Rafale, the US Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, and the Swedish Saab Gripen. The US, France, and Sweden, have all deployed well-connected lobbyists. The initial order is for 36 aircraft.

In October, Boeing appointed the former US ambassador to Brazil, Donna Hrinak, as its Brazil representative. Former president Lula is said to favor the French. The Swedish prime minister has visited Brasilia.

The Indian Government recently made the Rafale their preferred choice. The Brazilian Air Force appeared at one point to prefer the Swedish Gripen.  The US has promised not to oppose the transfer of technology.

But the US Air Force’s decision to repudiate the US $ 355m deal to purchase 20 Super Tucano turboprop light attack aircraft, reinforced the perception that the US is an unreliable partner.

Many members of the Brazil’s military and political establishment are suspicious of the US. Celso Amorim, Dilma’s defense minister, and Dilma’s foreign policy adviser, Professor Marco Antonio Garcia, probably share this view. Dilma is said to favor Boeing.

One thing is certain. Brazil is potentially a big player in the defense market.

The latest statistics, released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (IPRS), report that Brazil’s defense expenditures was US$28 Billion last year (1.6% of gross national product).

This compares to India’s US$ 34 Billion defense expenditure (2.8% of GDP). IPRS reports that international transfers of conventional weapons between 2007-2011 was 23% higher than in the period 2002-2006

Latin America received only 11%, of the global arms trade, the smallest proportion internationally. The import of arms into South America did increase by 77%, however, with Chile and Venezuela accounting for 61% of the total.. Venezuela arms imports rose by 555% between 2002-2006 and 2007-2011, and Venezuela has a US$ 4 billion credit with Russia for future arms purchases.

Brazil has already increased its arms imports. A deal with France involves submarines and helicopters. Brazil has ordered offshore patrol vessels from the UK.

The decision over the fighter jets is part of this process of modernization.

The Brazilian armed forces have yet to face up to the crimes committed under mliitary rule. If Brazil did so, it would help define a vital new role for the armed forces in the country’s future.

Professor Maxwell recently retired from Harvard University after a distinguished career as a leading expert on Brazil and Latin American Affairs. Kenneth Maxwell is a historian, an expert in Portuguese and Brazilian History and has taught at and been involved for many years with Harvard University, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and writes a weekly column for Brazil’s popular Folha newspaper. Dr. Maxwell currently lives in Devon, England.

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