It Took a While, but Brazil’s Finally Getting a New Fighter
Gripen NG deal took decades
Buying a new jet fighter can be a long-drawn-out process. Brazil, after many years of planning and procrastination, has finally signed a contract for its future combat aircraft.
Officials from the Brazilian Defense Ministry’s Aeronautics Command and the Swedish Saab Group put pen to paper recently, and the Brazilian air force is now set to receive 36 Gripen NG fighters.
The jets, worth a little over $5.4 billion, include 28 single-seat Gripen Es and eight twin-seat Gripen F aircraft. Deliveries will begin in 2019 and will be completed in 2024.
The Força Aérea Brasileira badly needs new fighters. For the lead air arm of Latin America’s largest and most populous country, new equipment has been a long time coming.
While Brazil officially selected the single-engine Gripen on Dec. 18, 2013, the procurement program dates back to the mid-1990s. The FAB laid plans to license and locally assemble a foreign-made jet to replace its veteran French-built Mirage III fighters.
At the time, the government envisioned that Brazilian companies like Embraer and Aviabras would team up with a heavyweight like France’s Dassault or Sukhoi of Russia.
Since ramping up local production lines would take a while, Brasília planned to make an off-the-shelf purchase of 12 U.S.-made fighters, to bridge the gap. The government confidently predicted that local industry, teaming with a foreign partner, would build up to 150 new fighters, plus more for export.
But the program went nowhere.
As a stopgap, Brasília signed up for 12 former French air force Mirage 2000 fighters, priced at around $100 million, to relieve the Mirage IIIs, which retired at the end of 2005.
In late 2007, the government formally relaunched the new fighter project, and at the time excepted to acquire 36 multi-role jets at a cost of $2.2 billion. By July 2008 the F-X2 project had split into two phases. In the first, Brazil would get 36 new fighters, blowing the $2.2 billion budget.
Phase two would involve local production of another 120 fighters to replace Northrop F-5 Tiger II light fighters, AMX International A-1 fighter-bombers and the Mirage 2000s by 2025.
A request for proposals went out to Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, Saab and Sukhoi for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Rafale, Typhoon, Gripen and Su-35, respectively. The government winnowed this down to just the Super Hornet, Rafale and Gripen.
By September 2009 it looked as if the twin-engined Rafale had cinched F-X2. Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the Rafale’s victory even before the competition was over. Saab and Boeing were both furious, and Lula instead declared that the government would delay the F-X2 decision until after a new president took office.
In January 2011, new president Dilma Rousseff deferred the decision to 2012 owing to budgetary problems. As the defense budget began to feel the cutbacks, the pricey Rafale started to lose its edge. At this stage, the program cost ballooned to $8 billion. Rousseff launched new comparative studies and called upon Embraer for its opinion.
The two cheapest options now became the front-runners. The Super Hornet offer—for 36 fighters—was for $7.5 billion, while the Gripen offer cost $6 billion. The Rafale offer exceeded $8 billion.
In early 2010, Brazilian newspapers were reporting that the FAB preferred the Gripen.
Technology transfer issues complicated the Super Hornet bid. Washington seemed particularly worried that advanced military technology could end up in the hands of a rogue state like Venezuela or Iran.
While Boeing guaranteed that Brasília could offer locally-built Super Hornets to export operators of Brasília’s own choosing, the American company required that Brazil merely assemble the fighters from U.S.-made kits, rather than manufacturing them from scratch.
On top of that, some Brazilians were dismayed over revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency was spying on Brazil.
While American guarantees would have provided “necessary” levels of technology transfer, France declared that its tech transfer would be unlimited. Although the French promise wasn’t explicit, the ability of the U.S. to provide technology transfer — as well as future parts and support — was clearly a concern for Brazilian officials.
In the past, Washington has been quick to place embargoes and restrictions on arms sales to Latin America, a fact that Brazil’s then-defense minister Nelson Jobim highlighted.
While the Saab product was finding favor on account of its lower price tag, critics pointed out that, unlike the Super Hornet and Rafale, the Gripen NG version was not yet in service. Indeed, it was—and still is—only flying in the form of a technology demonstrator.
The fact that the Gripen’s engine is American was another potential stumbling block. However, Saab was offering a guarantee that 80 percent of the airframes—not only those for Brazil, but also for any other customers— could be built in Brazil.
So it was that on Dec. 18, the Brazilian government announced its selection of the Saab Gripen NG as its next-generation fighter.
At the time, the government expected the program to cost around $4.5 billion. It has since increased by a billion.
Brazilian defense minister Celso Amorim attributed the final decision to technological factors. “The choice was the object of much study and careful consideration, and took into account performance, effective technology transfer and acquisition costs as well as operating costs.”
Predictably, Dassault officials slammed the Brazilian selection, criticizing the Gripen as “an aircraft provided with many items of equipment of third-party origin, especially U.S., and that does not belong to the same category as the Rafale.”
And what will the Brazilian air force get from the deal? Compared to the “legacy” Gripens already in service with Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand, the Gripen NG will feature an increased-thrust engine, extended range and endurance, expanded weapons capacity, new sensors including an electronically-scanned radar, updated electronic warfare systems and multi-function communications.
As well as the 36 jets, Saab is also to provide the all-important technology transfer, various sub-systems, financing and a decade-long bilateral collaboration agreement between the Brazilian and Swedish governments.
Sweden has ordered 60 Gripen NGs of its own, with the possibility that this figure will increase. Switzerland also selected the fighter, but a public vote scuppered the 22-aircraft buy in May 2014.
Brazilian air force brigadier Juniti Saito drew attention to the offsets included in the Saab bid. “We have several industries that have offered to contribute to the development of the aircraft. At the end of development, we will have access to all the technology of the aircraft.”
Embraer will lead Brazilian industrial participation in the Gripen, and it will be down to Brazil to develop and build the two-seat Gripen F variant, which only the Brazilian air force has selected.
Brazil is already in talks with Argentina, with a view to selling 24 Gripens to help bolster Buenos Aires’s decrepit air force. There will no doubt be more opportunities to sell Brazilian-built Gripens in Latin America and further afield.
One potential customer is the Brazilian navy, which requires a replacement for its veteran A-4 Skyhawk carrier fighters. In recent months Brazilian officials have discussed the possibility of developing a Sea Gripen to operate from the Brazilian carrier São Paulo, as part of an offset for the contract.
Two Swedish delegations recently visited the carrier in support of plans to develop a carrier version of the Gripen.
With the Mirage 2000s having flown their final operational sortie at the end of last year, the first in-service Gripens will therefore replace the comprehensively upgraded F-5s that now represent the backbone of the FAB fighter arm.
These Tiger IIs are very capable in their own right, with recent updates having added a new radar, beyond-visual-range missile capability and laser-guided bombs.
However, the basic F-5 design dates back to the late 1950s, and Brazilian airframes have each accumulated around 4,500 flight hours. The fleet of 57 Tiger IIs includes 11 aircraft purchased second-hand from the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
Once local Gripen production is underway, further orders should see the type replace Brazil’s A-1, subsonic ground-attacker and recce jet that Brazil and Italy developed jointly. Gripens could displace the 53 A-1s around 2030.
Local Gripen service and production also opens up new opportunities for Brazil’s missile-maker, Mectron. The company has already teamed up with South Africa’s Denel on the A-Darter, an advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missile that will arm both South African and Brazilian combat jets—including the respective Gripen fleets of both countries.
Beyond that, the two missile houses are jointly planning a 62-mile-range radar-guided air-to-air missile, named Marlin.
Brazil certainly took its time to select a new fighter, but it just might have made the right choice.