As a rising international power, Brazil under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva outlined a comprehensive national defense plan aimed at controlling and defending national territory, extending its maritime reach, and developing cutting-edge defense technology. The plan calls for reorganization of the army, air and space capabilities to cover Brazil’s extensive territory (including the Amazon), and augmented maritime defense capabilities reportedly designed to project Brazil’s offshore oil deposits.
Brazil’s original shopping list included a nuclear-powered submarine and as many as 36 advanced fighter aircraft. Proposals to update the Brazilian air force have been on the drawing boards for over a decade as the Brazilians seek to modernize their aging air fleet. Since 2008, it appeared that France held the inside position to win the multi-billion-dollar contest by providing Brazil with their Rafale F-X2 fighter, built by Dassault Aviation.
Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, who assumed the presidency on January 1, is Lula’s former chief of staff and handpicked successor. She has, nonetheless, called for a review of the acquisition process on the grounds of costs, budgetary concerns, and evolving defense and security needs. In recent conversations with Senator John McCain, Rouseff hinted at fresh readiness to reconsider purchasing Boeing’s F/A 18E/F Super Hornet, especially if the U.S. can demonstrate flexibility on technology transfers needed to support the sales. Brazil wants to do as much of the construction as possible.
Russia also hopes to capitalize on renewed competition for the fighter contract, advancing proposals to sell Russia’s latest generation of fighters, the SU-35BM, and capitalize on recent developments in Russian military aircraft development.
In the case of the Russian aircraft, it should be a case of caveat emptor. First, Russia has a track record of selling sub-standard military aircraft to foreign customers. Its MiG-29 fighters (designed as a counterpart to the U.S.’s F-16 Fighting Falcon) were returned to the manufacturer by Algeria, while Lebanon refused to purchase them. This is because of design flaws, inadequate maintenance (which causes a great number of Russian fighter jets to be grounded after inspection), and poor reliability in comparison with the F-16.
Secondly, the SU-35BM is essentially the upgraded version of SU-27 design from the 1970s. BM stands for “Big Modernization”—of a much earlier plane. The aircraft was designed as the Russian response to F-15 Eagle, but the Soviet/Russian quality, avionics, electronics, and customer service are of a considerably lower standard than its famed U.S. counterpart. No wonder the plane crashed during tests.
Thirdly, Russia already sold advanced Sukhoi fighters to Brazil’s neighbor Venezuela, which is also considering purchases of SU-35. In order to gain air superiority, Brazil may need to look to more advanced and more reliable fighters elsewhere, including the U.S.
Finally, Russian arms export companies are plagued with corruption and, at times, murder. Transparency International consistently ranks Russia among the worst transgressors. Two arms export senior executives were killed, others were accused of corruption and fired, and even a retired colonel who wrote about arms sales as a journalist was murdered.
Co-authored by Ariel Cohen.