Brazilian Perspectives on the Fighter Decision: Shaping a Defense Perimeter for Brazil


2013-12-19 By Kenneth Maxwell

Brazil announced on Wednesday December 18, 20013, that it had chosen the Swedish Saab Gripen NG for its new fleet of combat jet fighters for the Brazilian Air Force.

Boeing’s F-18 and France’s Rafale were the competitors. The announcement came less than a week after President Francois Hollande made a State Visit to Brazil with Eric Trappier, president of Dassault, the maker of the Rafale. The chief lobbyist for Boeing in Brazil was Donna Hrinak, the former US Ambassador in Brasilia.

The decision by Brazil has been twelve years in the making over three Brazilian administrations and has suffered from repeated delays and changes of options.

Brazil has now agreed to deal involving 36 Gripen aircraft for US$4.5bn to be delivered through 2016 and 2023. At the moment the Swedish Air Force, the Hungarian Air Force, the South African Air Force, and the Czech Air Force use the Gripen.

Gripen in Libya

But the new Gripen NG will have a new power plant General Electric F414G, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and increased on board fuel capacity.

The Brazilian Air Force commander, Junito Saito, said that the contract would be signed within the next twelve months and that the new aircraft replaced Brazil’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets which are due to be retired.

President Dilma Rousseff noted that Brazil “was a peaceful country but that needed to protect its offshore petroleum resources.”

The Brazilian Defence minister, Celso Amorim, estimates that Brazil will spend an annual US$8.6bn over the next two decades. Brazil is already spending US$2.6bn with EADS (European Aeronautic Defence & Space) for 50 helicopters, and has a deal with France’s DCNS SA and the Brazil’s Odebrecht to buy 5 submarines including a nuclear submarine.

Boeing did not win the deal with Brazil because of the “lack of trust” resulting from the NSA spying scandal according to Weber Barrel, Brazil’s former trade envoy.

Barrel told Bloomberg that “had the decision been made last year Boeing would have won.” There are indications that the deal with Boeing would have been announced during President Rosseff’s planned State Visit to Washington in October. She is said to have favored the deal.

But she cancelled the visit to Washington because of the revelations that her cell phone and emails had been monitored by the NSA.

On the same day as the Brazilian announcement, the Swedish government also announced that it had ordered 60 Gripen E aircraft ushering in the latest generation of Saab’s fighter jet.

Sweden is also hoping to sell the newest version of the Gripen jet to Switzerland.  Saab had already received two development contracts from Sweden, but the new Swedish order will allow Saab to begin production.

The Gripen E program includes mission systems, support and maintenance. The deal with Switzerland is expected involve 22 aircraft. The Swiss decision awaits a national referendum.

In the Folha de Sao Paulo. Igor Gielow and Fernanda Odilla. reported that the Saab Gripen option is cheaper than the offers by Boeing and Dassault Rafale.

In favor of the Swedish aircraft they claim is that it has a lower cost of operation, and the conditions on the transfer of technology are more favorable to Brazil.

The arguments against the Swedish aircraft are three:  it has a single motor as opposed to two on its rivals; it has not been tested in combat; and there are potential problems over deadlines and dependency on other countries for components.

The price of the Saab Gripen NG they say is US$ 4.5bn as opposed to US$ 7.5bn for the Boeing F-18 ad US$ 8bn for the Dassault Rafale F-3. The cost per hour per flight is US$ 4,000 for the Saab Gripen, US$ 10-14,000 for the Boeing F-18, and US$ 14,000 for the Dassault Rafale.

Dassault criticized the Brazilian decision saying that: “The Gripen relies on many components from third parties especially from North Americans…it is lighter and is not equivalent to the Rafale.”

Folha also points out in its comment column by Vera Magalhaes that the mayor of Sao Bernardo do Campo in Sao Paulo State, Luiz Marinho, of the Workers Party (PT), the same party of former president Lula and president Dilma, had concluded a deal with Saab for the opening of new factory to produce components for the Gripen, and that the mayor was notified prior to the announcement.

Vera Magalhaes also says that Dilma Rousseff had made the decision in November, but had waited until the visit of President Hollande to make the announcement.

Dilma Rousseff had returned from her visit to the UN with her mind made up that the decision on the aircraft needed to be made, and that the reaction of the U.S. to the denunciations of spying had been insufficient and was in her mind, the ultimate decision maker, a decisive issue.

In his opinion column in Folha today Igor Gielow says that the choice is a “half cup” depending on your vision of a cup half full or half empty. It is surprising for its unexpectedness rather than for its logic.

He points out that in 2010 an “arrogant” French Minister of Defense had said that looking at the Rafale and the Gripen was to compare “a Ferrari beside a Volvo.”

But a Volvo has its advantages Gielow point out: It costs a third less to run that does a Ferrari. On the negative side, Gielow says, although Dilma has now eventually made a decision, Brazil has lost years in the process.

Editor’s Note: Francis Tusa pointed out that the Brazil decision has taken longer than the legendary Hawk delayed decision by India!