The Brazilian Fighter Decision and Its Impact


2014-01-02 Normally, a decision by a relatively small air force to purchase combat aircraft is of significance to the competitors and not to the global market.

But the decision by Brazil to purchase the new variant of Gripen comes at the juncture of several other market decisions which bring legacy aircraft production to a visible end.

The South Koreans rejected the F-15; the UAE has announced it will not buy Eurofighter; and the Saudis have been delaying their completion of a Eurofighter deal.

In effect, this means that the Brazilian decision NOT to buy the F-18 brings another legacy aircraft line towards an inevitable sunset.

The Chinese and Russians will build new combat aircraft for perceived national security reasons and will seek to bring new solutions to the global market place.

This meant that Brazil like India was making a selection of which legacy aircraft would continue to be produced in the next decade.

We have written several pieces on the Brazilian decision based on Brazilian discussions as well as with the major players in the competition and experts in India, Europe and South Africa on the combat aircraft in completion.

By combing several strands of analyses from these sources, we have put together a composite picture of the Brazilian process.

First, it should be noted that this has been a long running process.  As Francis Tusa noted, the competition has lasted longer than the legendary Hawk downselect by India!

Second, political considerations have been important.  Brazil has emerged as the 6th largest nation in the global economy, and in spite of economic difficulties, is seeking its place at the great power table.  The President of Brazil has been an important player in the decision making process and in this case the failure of the US Administration to heal the open wound associated with the revelations of NSA intrusions into her personal emails is an important consideration.

It is not as some have suggested simply a question of personal pique; it is a question as put by Kenneth Maxwell of why an under 30 year old defense contractor can read the personal emails of the President of Brazil?

This raises significant security reliability considerations. 

If Snowden can do  so, then what assurance does the United States have that US data is easy pickings for the PRC or Russia?

The Brazilian decision is one of the end of 2014 decisions which is determining which legacy aircraft will continue to be produced. Credit Image: Bigstock
The Brazilian decision is one of the end of 2014 decisions which is determining which legacy aircraft will continue to be produced. Credit Image: Bigstock 

It is not the event that was most significant; it has been the slow response to deal with the issue and resolve questions of the security of Brazilian data.  And the notion that NSA was spying on Brazil’s energy companies as Brazil builds out an energy structure at odds with US preferences, namely offshore drilling, is of considerable importance as well.All indications that we received was the Boeing and the F-18 had emerged as the front runner in the past two years of the competition.

Boeing clearly hoped that a Brazilian program would allow them to expand their role in Brazil and to use Brazil as a launch pad to a post platform centric future.

Indeed, the decision by Brazil not to buy the F-18 poses a fundamental question for Boeing: Is it time for Boeing defense to embrace the post-platform age and leverage things like next generation weaponization as its focus of attention?

The agreement with Embraer to weaponize the Super Tucano may be a harbinger of the future conjoined with the failure to sell a combat platform to Brazil.

Third, the Brazilian Air Force is in extremis.  It needs new combat aircraft.  The range and variety of territory protected in part by the Brazilian Air Force requires and multi-mission aircraft.  The decision to retire the Mirage 2000s meant that a replacement aircraft was needed in the short term.

Fourth, Embraer is a key player in any decision by Brazil to buy combat systems.  They are the focal point of where any construction would take place and are key players in the projected maintenance of such systems.  Embraer is a significant global player in the aerospace market, and a sophisticated one as well.  And they have new products coming to market, notably the KC-390.  They have a relationship with Boeing to market the new lift aircraft, and in spite of the failure to buy the F-18, such an alliance may be part of Boeing’s global future.

The Gripen could be attractive to Embraer as an aircraft that could be built in Brazil and marketed to targeted air forces worldwide.

Fifth, Gripen had several advantages when compared to the other offerings.  Most frequently mentioned is the question of cost, and that Gripen was the cheapest of the aircraft on offer.  Although true, this also minimizes advantages of Gripen for an Air Force like Brazils.

The Gripen has been built by SAAB to be a highly interoperable aircraft with its allies, and this is attractive to the Brazilian Air Force.  The Gripen has built a substantial maintainability capability into the aircraft, and as Francis Tusa has noted, the aircraft was designed from the outset to be more maintainable by at least 50 % than its predecessors.  It also carriers a variety of modern weaponry, and can be configured in a variety of ways looking into the future.

An additional possibility is that Brazil could host the Gripen fighter weapons school and become a center of excellence for those global air forces which buy the Gripen.  In other words, rather than being simply a BUYER of aircraft, Brazil could become a center of excellence for the production, maintenance and concepts of operations for the new version of the Gripen.

The final consideration is the fate of the French aircraft in the competition.

According to Brazilian sources the aircraft cost a bit more than the F-18 and cost was a consideration.  And unlike the Gripen, the Rafale is a two engine aircraft which prime face makes it more expensive to operate.  There were discussions with India to sort out a Rafale global coalition, but these talks did not get traction.  The Swedish government unlike the French government was willing to buy more Gripens, rather than to cut the Rafale buy as did the French.

In short, a number of key considerations came into play shaping the Brazilian decision.

And the Brazilian decision is part of a pattern of sorting out which legacy aircraft will be produced in the decade ahead, or move off into the sunset.

For earlier pieces on Brazil and the fighter competition see the following: