Brazilian defence minister Nelson Jobim says the nation’s air force prefers France’s Dassault Rafale jet as its next-generation fighter despite the plane’s higher price tag.
Brazil is in the final stages of buying 36 jets worth more than $4 billion, which are to be assembled locally. The deal could eventually rise to more than 100 aircraft. The country is also a South African strategic partner – along with India – and is co-developing the Denel Dynamics A-Darter short-range air-to-air misile that will be fitted to the winner of this competition.
The three finalists are the Rafale made by Dassault, the Gripen NG made by Sweden’s Saab, and the F-18 made by US-based Boeing. Jobim told a congressional hearing the air force commander preferred the Rafale on defence policy grounds, Reuters reports. “He said that based on technical criteria, any of the three planes met the needs to control air space, but that the air force command considered the Rafale to be more consistent with defence policies despite its costs,” Jobim said.
In January, local media reported the air force preferred the Gripen because it had lower purchase and maintenance costs and would allow for more technology to be transferred to Brazil. Analysts said Jobim may have pressured the air force to change its position. Brazil has signed a strategic defence agreement with France worth billions of dollars, including the local assembly of helicopters and conventional and nuclear-powered submarines. Latin America’s largest country is looking for a generous technology transfer offer and local assembly as part of the deal. France was the only country that could ensure those requirements, Jobim told legislators.
“What is worth more to Brazil? To pay more and have autonomy or pay less and have no technology autonomy?” he said. Boeing had offered to assemble part of the plane’s “sensitive” components in Brazil in an effort to convince Brazilian authorities there would be no restrictions on technology transfer, Jobim said. “I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the plane,” Jobim said in reference to his reply to Boeing. Jobim also said the US government could give no upfront guarantee and that Brazil had seen a series of US technology embargoes.
The Gripen involved a series of parts suppliers from different countries with which Brazil would have to negotiate separately, he added. Jobim will present his recommendation to Lula as early as next week but it will still be reviewed by the National Defense Council before a final decision, he said.
Meanwhile, French news agency AFP reports Brazilian prosecutors have agreed to open an inquiry into the multi-billion-dollar tender. A prosecution source told AFP Wednesday that prosecutor Jose Alfredo de Paulo Silva approved the request from a Brazilian individual who argued the preference for France’s Rafale was against “economic principles.”
Contrary to te Reuters report, AFP avered Lula da Silva’s stated preference for the ultra-sophisticated, semi-stealth Rafale jet has angered the air force, which apparently still prefers the much cheaper and easier-to-maintain Gripen.
The Rafale has never been sold abroad, but after Lula’s comments it is now seen as the front-runner to clinch the contract to supply some 36 fighter jets to the South American nation. “The Brazilian government, because of external political factors, has decided to choose the Rafale, ruling out the Gripen and Super Hornet which were put forward at a lower price. That is against economic principles,” the Brazilian opponent who registered the complaint said.
A spokesman for interior ministry told AFP the prosecutor would now “gather information to decide whether… there is a civil case to answer.” The inquiry could last as long as a year, the source added.
On Monday, officials said Lula da Silva had now put off any announcement on the winner of the bid, which had been due after Easter, until mid-May. Throughout the competition, Lula da Silva and Jobim have underscored technology transfer as their top priority so Brazil could not only build its own next-generation fighters but also export them.
Jobim said Wednesday that he would deliver his report on the tender to Lula next Wednesday. “I have to finish it and present it next week,” Hobim told lawmakers from the foreign relations and defense committee. Lula will then call a meeting of his national defence council, and announce his decision after hearing its advice. Jobim stressed that the decision will take into account “the development of the national industry and the total transfer of technology.” He added it was “not an international tender in which there are criteria to take into account such as the price. It’s a choice by the government which will take into account strategic, long-term criteria.” A decade ago South Africa’s government used the same line of argument to justify a R47 billion Strategic Defence Package that included acquiring four frigates, three submarines, 30 light helicopters and 50 fighters, including 26 Gripen.
France’s jet bid was bolstered by the fact that Brazil has a strategic pact with Paris that has already seen it sign a 12-billion-dollar deal in early 2009 to buy 50 helicopters and five submarines from France.