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Gripens to Brazil – What Role Did Snowden Play?

By Taylor Marvin

The Saab Gripen NG will be Brazil’s next fast jet. The decision to adopt the Swedish multirole fighter was first reported by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo this morning, and was later confirmed by an official afternoon press conference in the capital. Saab’s victory, which involves “an extensive technology transfer package, a financing package as well as long term bi-lateral collaboration between the Brazilian and Swedish Governments,” comes at the expense of the other two competitors in Brazil’s FX-2 acquisition program, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Citing the aircraft’s performance, the deal’s technology transfer, and costs, Brazil is now expected to purchase 36 Gripens by 2020, replacing the venerable Dassault Mirage 2000 in the Southern hemisphere’s largest air force.

The selection is big news for Brazilian military aviation, whose FX-2 program has been plagued by delays and missteps. During the 2003-2010 administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the Gripen’s “Euro-Canard” peer was the favored choice — rare positive news for the Dassualt Rafale, which has struggled to find export sales — before falling from favor due to high costs. After Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff took office in 2011 the Super Hornet became the apparent favorite, making today’s rejection somewhat of a surprise.

For its part the Brazilian choice of the Gripen instead of the Super Hornet is reportedly due in part to this year’s revelations by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency had spied on communications by President Rousseff and Brazilian high-level officials and corporations. Brazilian outrage over US espionage has led to tensions unprecedented in the two countries’ recent history and “the NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” according to an anonymous Reuters source. But how credible are the Brazilian claims that Snowden’s disclosures played a major role in the decision to reject the Super Hornet?

Besides Russia, Brazil has perhaps been the key foreign player in the ongoing Snowden story. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s leaks of classified information, is based in Rio de Janeiro and Snowden has requested asylum in Brazil, this week writing an “open letter” to the Brazilian people and offering to help Brazilian counter-espionage efforts. NSA eavesdropping on Rousseff attracted major attention in the Brazilian press and spurred outrage in Brazil, with Rousseff herself canceling a trip to Washington in September. In the highly political world of high-profile defense acquisitions, it is entirely possible that Brazil rejected the American aircraft both as a deliberate snub and to keep its distance from reliance on the American defense industry.

But it is important to take the Brazilian claim that its post-Snowden tensions with the United States are responsible for the rejection of the Boeing bid with a grain of salt. While former President Lula’s administration had favored the Rafale, the Rousseff government cited Dassault’s high price tag — $8 billion overall — as prohibitive. The Saab bid, by contrast, totals $4.5 billion. This reflects the lower capabilities of the single-engine Gripen, which has a 31,000 lb maximum takeoff weight compared to the twin-engine Rafale and Super Bug’s 54,000 lb and 66,000 lb, respectively. While an advanced aircraft, the Gripen is not in the same class as the Rafale or Super Hornet.

Given that the Boeing deal was priced at $7.5 billion for an aircraft far more similar to the Rafale than the Gripen, this suggests that the Super Hornet was rejected for cost or technology transfer issues rather than simply political reasons. Brazil faces no major external threats and enjoys good relations with its neighbors, which is reflected in its erratic and at 1.5 percent of GDP comparatively-low defense spending, lower than its BRIC peers (Brazilian defense spending as a percentage of GDP is neither high nor low by South American standards, though it is far higher in absolute terms). With limited resources and this mild defense outlook, it is entirely plausible that Brazil judged the smaller, lighter, and more affordable Saab Gripen as sufficient for its needs. If this is the case, then comments that Brazilian anger over the Snowden revelations influenced the decision are most likely an opportune jab at America.

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