France seen leading race to equip Brazil air force

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France's modern combat jet, the Rafale, is seen as the leading contender in a four-billion-dollar race to supply the Brazilian air force ahead of a visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Rio De Janeiro - France's modern combat jet, the Rafale, is seen as the leading contender in a four-billion-dollar race to supply the Brazilian air force ahead of a visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Analysts say France's offer to give Brazil the technology behind the multi-role combat aircraft as part of the sale of 36 planes could give it the edge over rival bids from the United States and Sweden.

If France's Dassault does sell its Rafales to Brazil, it would be the first time the jets have been sold abroad.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told AFP in an exclusive interview ahead of Sarkozy's two-day visit that the technology transfer offer gave the Rafale "an exceptional comparative advantage" over Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen NG fighters.

While cautioning that Brazil's decision process still had to be approved by air force commanders and lawmakers, he praised France as "the only important country ready to discuss transfer of technology in all areas with us."

He stressed that "a country the size of Brazil can't buy a product from another country without technology transfer."

A Brazilian military expert who runs a specialist magazine titled Defesanet, Nelson During, told AFP that Brazil's decision should be known in October.

"The air force should send its evaluation of the three aircraft to the government on 23 October -- Day of the Aviator -- indicating its choice. Then, the National Defense Council should ratify that choice pretty quickly," he said.

Informed sources though said that Sarkozy's visit which starts Sunday and coincides with Brazil's Independence Day celebrations, could precipitate the announcement of the winning bid.

During said France's big advantage in the competition "is that it doesn't put restrictions on its technology -- it gives everything."

That appeared to contrast with the offers from Boeing and Saab.

The US company is subject to congressional oversight for defense technology exports -- something Brazil has run up against several times in the past, to its annoyance.

Saab's Gripen, while praised as a relatively cheap and versatile option, relies on outside contractors for some of its most essential equipment -- such as the US giant General Electric for the engine, and Italy's Selex for the combat radar. That could limit what technology it could ultimately transfer.

Brazil's aim is to not just buy aircraft off-the-shelf, but to use the purchase to boost its ambitions of becoming one of the 21st century's great powers.

Lula said Brazil's increasing clout on the world stage, and its natural resources in the Amazon and in offshore oil fields, required a defense industry to match.

For During, the essential criteria in the jet fighter bid were: How much technology will be transferred? What will Brazilian industry get out of it? What are Brazil's long-term geo-political goals?

"We already have a deal with France. Should we reinforce it? If we negotiate with the US, will we be forced to toe the line on its policies? Are there advantages to negotiating with the Swedes? These are the questions on Brazil's side," he said.

The price per plane -- one of the criticisms of the Rafale by its rival bidders -- "is not fundamental," During said.

"It's the operating cost that counts. The cost per hour of flight, of maintenance, of the electronics. We are a poor country and all this has to last for the next 30 years."

He added: "The Rafale is not the most expensive offer in terms of operating cost. That's the F/A-18."

Sarkozy is already set to sign a couple of other defense deals with Brazil during his stay.

They will confirm previously announced agreements for Brazil to buy 50 of Eurocopter's EC-725 troop transport helicopters, and the purchase of five submarines, one of which will be adapted by the Brazilians to run on nuclear energy.

"The submarines are the defense shield for the deepwater oil fields," which could contain up to 50 billion barrels of oil, During said.

A special navy base will be built in Rio de Janeiro for the submarines.

Claire de Oliveira/AFP/Expatica

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