Brazil finally settles on an advanced fighter jet; US loses big

After over twelve years of prevarication Brazil has finally decided to buy thirty-six Saab Grippen NG fighter jets as the Brazilian Air Force’s new FX-2 multi-purpose jet aircraft.

Reach back into the dim recesses of memory and the start of Brazil’s fighter jet saga can be recalled from the dying days of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso presidency. As long ago as 2001 it was abundantly clear that the Brazilian air force needed a new set of fighter jets to maintain a presence over the entirety of the country, particularly the drug smuggling air routes in the Amazon. But the price tag was high and financial crisis threatened as Lula roared towards electoral success in 2002. In 2003 Cardoso’s aides were clear that they’d put off the fighter jet decision because it was going to leave a serious debt obligation to whomever won the 2002 presidential election and, in the interests of democratic accountability, they thought the decision should be left to the new president. Lula took up the issue fairly quickly with a long string of vague statements that played Sweden, the US and France off against each other to bring a raft of technology transfer agreements and agreements to smooth out a string of irritating disputes. For Lula the personal highlight may well have been an invitation from Sarkozy to be guest of honour in Paris at Bastille Day in 2009. All of this courting aside, a decision never came, and with the recent decision to recondition part of the Air Force’s existing fleet it appeared that nothing was going to happen.

Why the decision to buy Swedish and not the French Mirage or the American F-18 Hornet? The French jet reportedly cost too much and, well, getting caught spying apparently has a real price; buying the F-18 Hornet became politically impossible as soon as Snowden’s files on US espionage activities in Brazil became public. There were also some questions about technology transfer, an issue that has been hotly contested with the US due to Washington’s past decisions to bloc Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer from selling Super Tucano light prop-driven fighter aircraft to the Venezuelan military. Recent apparent shenanigans that saw the US military cancel and re-tender contracts already awarded to Embraer won’t have helped the Hornet’s case, either.

Expect to see some substantial technology transfer from Sweden to Brazil as part of the Grippen purchase. An expansive view of national security advancement has been an intrinsic part of Brazil’s recent foreign defence purchases, with joint production and technological collaboration being key parts of deals with France on submarines and Eurocopter on helicopters. Brazil’s National Defense Policies are clear that the government’s vision is for an inter-operable cooperative continental security vision, which naturally (in Brazil’s view) will be heavily led by Brazilian officers and, more importantly for national development ambitions, equipped with Brazil-manufactured kit. The five to six billion dollar Saab deal is the latest strut in this strategy.

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