Brazil Embarking Upon F-X2 Fighter Program

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Could the words “Brazilian fighter” begin evoking images unrelated to the Gracies? A proposed 50% boost to Brazil’s defense budget could be on its way to accomplishing that, and more. While the Navy and Army are also in line for funds to replace broken-down equipment, the fighters will be a critical centerpiece of the Forca Aerea Brasileira’s efforts. The 36+ aircraft buys under consideration are mostly the same set of 4+ generation fighters that were considered last time: Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, EADS’ Eurofighter, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 60, Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen NG, and Sukhoi’s SU-35. The Gripen, Rafale, and Super Hornet were picked as finalists, and along the way, the Brazilian competition became much more important to at least one of that trio.

This free-to-view DID Spotlight article covers Brazil’s reborn F-X competition, adds its assessment of their offers’ relative strengths and weaknesses, and covers ongoing events. Now, the government has tapped Dassault’s Rafale as its preferred choice. But President Lula seemed to short-circuit the FAB’s selection process, and Embraer has reportedly indicated a preference for… the JAS-39NG Gripen.

  • A Stirring Giant?
  • F-X2: The Competition
  • Analysis: F-X2, The Competitors
  • Updates and Key Events [updated]
  • Additional Readings [updated]

A Stirring Giant?

In January 2008, Brazil’s President Lula authorized Brazilian Air Force Commander Juniti Saito to restart the long-delayed F-X fighter replacement program. “F-X2” aims to acquire 36 next generation fighters for the Brazilian Air Force, which is currently depending on Super Tucano/ALX surveillance and light attack turboprops, AMX subsonic light fighters, modernized F-5BRs whose design dates back to the 1960s, and a squadron of 12 Mirage 2000s built in the early 1980s. A previous 2001 F-X competition was put on hold in 2003, and then canceled in February 2004 due to budget difficulties and political issues. The initial budget for the current iteration is said to be $2.2 billion, but the RFP leaves the door open for a fourfold increase over time, meaning up to 120 aircraft.

To understand why, a bit of background is in order.

After its existing Mirage IIIs simply wore out and had to be retired at the end of 2005, FAB Command worked out a plan to find an emergency interim replacement. The final choice was 12 second-hand French Mirage 2000Cs. The airframes selected by Brazil were produced for France between 1984 -1987, and began arriving in Brazil in 2006.

Inducting 20 year old aircraft is not a long-term solution. Especially for a country that reportedly has about 37% of its 719 plane air force grounded, due to age and the toll Brazil’s environment takes on machines of all types. Like many of its neighbors, Brazil is also becoming more and more concerned about Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez’s large arms purchases, and his aggressive activities within the region. This is especially true in Bolivia, which supplies an important percentage of Brazil’s natural gas.

Brazil actually has a reasonably solid mid-tier to its air force. Its Brazilian-Italian AMX subsonic light attack jets and indigenous Super Tucano COIN/surveillance turboprops are quality offerings within their respective niches, and they are backed up by a small but advanced set of airborne, ground looking and maritime radar aircraft based on Embraer’s ERJ-145 business jets. They will be augmented by 12 refurbished P-3 Orions bought to patrol Brazil’s huge coast and maritime economic zone.

The high end of the FAB’s fighter fleet, however, is inferior even when judged by regional standards. This might not be a huge concern if its neighbors possessed only short-range or limited capability fighters. Venezuela’s large defense expenditures, especially its recent purchase of long-range, 4+ generation SU-30MK2 fighters instead of more clearly defensive alternatives like the MiG-29, appear to have had the effect of triggering countermoves in several quarters. Even so, Lula’s government is careful to stress that this is not about an arms race. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim reportedly said in a 2007 public speech that:

“Brazil has well established, peaceful relations with all South American nations … one of our political priorities is economic and structural integration of the region … (and in 2008) we’ll also be strengthening our military links…. [Brazil cannot] neglect its defense. Therefore, we will increase our budget outlays and investment in the army, navy and air force by more than 50 percent…. [Brazil] is elaborating a national strategy defense plan that will determine each military branch’s mission and the equipment it needs for its activities”.

According to official figures made public on Nov 4/07, Brazil has requested $5 billion for its 2008 defense budget, with the possibility of raising it to $5.64 billion. In 2007, Brazil’s military budget was around $3.5 billion.

President Lula da Silva’s administration has larger plans than just equipment recapitalization, saying that “we must overcome the lack of strategic planning and the technological dismantling of the last two decades.” The new National Defence Strategy group is designed to plan and execute the recovery of the “capability of our armed forces and the technological edge we once had in certain fields.”

Brazil maintained an impressive niche capability during the 1970s and 1980s in areas like tank and armored vehicle design, rockets, missiles, and of course aircraft. Unfortunately, in a world divided by cold war allegiances, there was often little room for a non-aligned 3rd party exporter. While some projects like the Tucano succeeded, and others like the AMX enjoyed qualified success, many promising projects saw limited exports at best, or became failed efforts.

The world is no longer divided into such camps, however, which may offer the Brazilian defense industry a second chance if it partners well and executes smartly. According to the main guidelines of the da Silva’s long term strategy, Brazilian defense industry should look to become a player again in the export of missiles, aircraft and other equipment. DID would be surprised if UAVs, with their long endurance surveillance capabilities and natural connection to Brazil’s aviation industry, didn’t also become a priority. The overal thrust of Brazil’s policies is certainly clear: “We must convince ourselves that we can become a world power this century,” says President Lula da Silva.

On the one hand, these statements remind one of the old joke that goes: “Brazil is the nation of the future – and always will be.”

On the other hand, anteing up with a 50% hike of the defense budget certainly displays seriousness, and Brazil has already set up a key partnership to develop the 5th generation A-Darter short range air-air missile with South Africa. A similar deal with Israel for its Derby/Alto radar guided missile is also expected at some point, and RFPs went out recently for a handful of medium transport helicopters (AW EH101, EADS EC725, Russian Mi-171V) and some attack helicopters (AW-TAI A129, EADS Tiger, Russian Mi-35M – which won ).

The giant may be stirring again. A handful of fighters and helicopters, plus ships to patrol its coasts, won’t exactly make anyone a world power – and Brazil has an equally urgent and unfilled need for transport aircraft. Still, these buys may go a long way toward ensuring the nation’s ability to patrol and enforce its long borders. The right deals may also allow Brazil to re-establish its faded indigenous defense industry on the world stage.

F-X2: The Competition

For this second round of the FX competition, Dassault’s Rafale, Eurofighter’s Typhoon, Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen, and Sukhoi’s recently-unveiled SU-35 were all reported to be back in contention. All were expected to bid, and Boeing added its F/A-18E/F Block II Super Hornet. The FAB was also said to be interested in the Lockheed-Martin F-35, but the finalized nature of the Lighting’s industrial production partnership program was likely to keep the program from delivering the industrial offsets Brazil seeks. Meanwhile, a pair of competitors from earlier rounds faded out. Dassault’s Mirage 2000 production line was closing, and Brazil did not mention the F-16 as a contender – or advance Lockheed Martin’s F-16BR Block 70 offer to the finals.

Reporter Tania Monteiro of the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo writes that technology transfer will be an essential part of any deal, and quotes influential Workers’ Party Deputy (PT is Lula’s party, Deputy = MP or Congressman) Jose Genoino as saying:

“France is always the better partner. Concerning Russia, everyone knows the difficulties and we don’t know what is going to happen in ten years so that we will be able to guarantee our spare parts. The USA, traditionally, does not transfer technology…. We want to seek the lowest price with the most technology transfer.”

If his assessment of Brazil’s priorities remains true, that country could represent a critical last chance for France to get some export momentum and success behind its Rafale, which has lost every competition it has entered thus far (Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, UAE, et. al.). To win, France will need to come up with a strong package. According to reports, the indications are that technology transfer will be more important than cost in terms of the final choice. Defence minister Nelson Jobim:

“Whatever the final contract it must be closely linked to national development, to help advance in the creation of a strong defense industry and therefore the technological edge we are requesting.”

Analysis: F-X2, The Competitors

Some quick handicapping follows.

Eurofighter Typhoon (EADS/European – eliminated): Technology transfer may prove to be an issue, but price was always likely to be the biggest one. Eurofighters consistently sell for $110-130 million, which doesn’t square well with $2.2 billion for 36 planes. The most capable air-air choice in the group would provide unquestioned regional air superiority, but ground surveillance and strike performance is still provisional (Tranche I v6), or unproven (Tranche 2+). This has been fatal in competitions like Singapore’s, and may have proven to be a handicap here.

On the plus side, EADS Airbus offers a potent option for industrial offsets, and other EADS subsidiaries have footholds of their own. Airbus military’s A400M medium transport may create additional military interest in a long term industrial partnership, and EADS Eurocopter’s Cougar has just become the medium-lift mainstay of Brazil’s future helicopter fleet.

JAS-39 Gripen (Saab/BAE) Saab offers strong industrial partnerships, and has a record of successful technology transfer agreements. The next-generation Gripen Demo program offers key industrial opportunities, along with a high-performance, affordable fighter. Gripens can operate from highways if need be, which gives Brazil great flexibility in deploying them. They would also give Brazil’s Air Force commonality with A-Darter air-air missile missile partner and political ally South Africa, which operates JAS-39C/Ds.

An AESA radar developed with Selex Galileo will also be offered, leveraging that firm’s successful history with Brazil’s F-5BR (Grifo-F) and AMX (Scipio) fighter programs. It’s an unusual combination of an AESA radar that can be mechanically scanned, offering more points of failure but widening the radar’s scanning cone versus other competitors.

These factors make Gripen a strong contender. Its F404/F414 engine offers the advantages of certain performance and a very broad customer base, but is subject to US export approvals if that’s an issue for Brazil. Another potential weakness may be the fact that each plane only has one engine, since Brazil combines vast over-water areas and even vaster wilderness areas to patrol. Those requirements usually translate into a focus on range and 2-engine safety, which have worked against Gripen in other competitions. While the other 2 Brazilian finalists are both 2-engine planes, most of Brazil’s other fighters (Tucano ALX, AMX, Mirage 2000) have just one engine.

F-35 Lightning II/ F-16BR (Lockheed Martin – eliminated) F-35 industrial partnership and technology transfer issues proved too difficult to overcome, so Lockheed is offering an F-16BR instead. It will probably resemble the F-16E/F “Block 70” variant being offered to India, with an AESA radar and built-in IRST/targeting sensors, an uprated engine, et. al. Both India and Brazil are fond of Israeli avionics and weapons, so those aspects are also likely to be common to both offers.

The F-16BR offers shares many of the Super Hornet’s perceived benefits and drawbacks: AESA radar and sensors and weaker American dollar on the plus side, poorer aerodynamic performance and distrust of America as an interfering supplier on the minus side. The F-16 cannot play the carrier-compatible card like the Super Hornet, and offers only a single-engine design. On the other hand, it does offer wide compatibility with other regional and global air forces, and its cost is significantly lower.

The F-35 would have offered a clear set of performance benefits over competing aircraft. No aircraft in this group could have matched the Lightning’s advanced surveillance capabilities, and surveillance is a big need in Brazil. The F-35B STOVL variant also offered Brazil the ability to operate from small, dispersed runways, and it would have been perfect for aircraft carriers like Brazil’s Sao Paolo (ex-Foch). Unfortunately, technology transfer issues were not the F-35’s only problem. Other barriers to an F-35 win included questions surrounding air-air performance against Venezuela’s SU-30MKs, the low likelihood of deliveries before 2016, and its single engine design.

Rafale (Dassault) Despite its past history of failure in international competitions, the Rafale has a lot of advantages in this competition. It can play the carrier-compatible card, since the Sao Paolo was once FNS Foch. Experience with the Mirage 2000 offers a common technological and training base, and France is seen as a good supplier who avoids political interference and makes good on technology transfers. The one real negative is the Rafale’s narrow range of integrated weapons – but offers of partnerships in some of those areas might serve to hit 2 targets at once by playing the tech transfer card more strongly. Since Dassault really, really needs this deal, they should be very motivated on price. If they can’t make it here, they may not be able to make it anywhere.

Subsequent events would bear out these advantages.

SU-35 (Sukhoi/ Rosoboronexport – eliminated?) This was the aircraft Russia offered in the last round. Russian tech transfer is trusted. Lack of political interference is trusted absolutely. The aircraft itself offers an option that’s slightly better than the SU-30MK, but still presents itself to the region as an equivalency move. The price will be good, and Sukhoi has some support in the air force. On the other hand, service and parts delivery are almost guaranteed to be bad. That gives the FAB real pause.

One way around that is to offer licensed local production, which would also have to extend to the aircraft’s NPO Saturn engines and fitted avionics, in order to solve the Russian service problem1 .

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Block II (Boeing) The Super Hornet shares the carrier-compatible card with Dassault’s Rafale, but compatibility with a smaller carrier like the Sao Paolo would have to be established. Boeing also shares a key advantage with EADS’ Eurofighter when it comes to industrial offsets, thanks to Boeing’s passenger aircraft division. The Block II version’s proven APG-79 AESA radar offers Brazil an attractive technology, and a weaker American dollar makes American exports more affordable.

On the flip side, the Super Hornet offers poorer aerodynamic performance than other competitors, falling behind in areas like maneuverability, acceleration, etc. This weakness is compounded by the fact that Super Hornets sell for about $75-90 million each, placing them above the Gripen, F-16 E/F+, and the SU-35, but below the Eurofighter. Concerns about America’s propensity to use arms export bans as a political lever add a final complication to the Super Hornet’s odds.

Source: Defense Industry Daily

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Noticias, Reportajes, Cobertura de Eventos por nuestro staff editorial, así como artículos recibidos por la redacción para ser republicados en este medio.

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