By Taylor Marvin
Last week Brazil made the surprise announcement that it would purchase the Saab Gripen NG as part of its FX-2 acquisition program. Defense Industry Daily has a good rundown of the program and the three finalist aircraft involved.
The decision to buy the Swedish aircraft came at the expense of the two other fighters under consideration, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and is a major blow to Boeing. Brazilian officials partially attributed the decision to reject the Super Hornet — which was thought the most likely to be adopted — to the revelations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden that the intelligence agency had been intercepting communications by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, high officials, and the Brazilian partially-state-owned energy giant Petrobras. Numerous news outlets repeated the claims, with Foreign Policy writing that “Edward Snowden just cost defense contractor Boeing” “about $4 billion.” The New York Times termed the decision a “snub.”
As I wrote at the time, I doubt that the Brazilian government’s real anger over US espionage played a major role in the decision. First, at $4.5 billion for 36 aircraft the Saab bid was far cheaper than Boeing or Dassault’s, which totaled $7.5 and $8 billion, respectively. Secondly, Brazilian officials also highlighted the importance of technology transfer for both the overall FX-2 program and the decision to purchase the Gripen. In addition to building Brazilian Gripens in Brazil and a possible future profit-sharing partnership with Brazilian aircraft conglomerate Embraer, the single-engine Gripen has far more in common than its rivals with both the Dassault Mirage 2000s Brazil is retiring this month and the class of fighter the country hopes to indigenously develop and market in the future, increasing the practical value of the knowledge and experience gained from operating the Swedish jet. “When the development phase is finished we will have intellectual property about this aircraft, that is, access to everything,” commented the head of the Brazilian Air Force about the Gripen [my translation]. This technology transfer is far more important in Brazil, home to a developed civil and military aircraft industry, than in other countries acquiring foreign aircraft.
Finally, while the Gripen is an advanced and capable aircraft — it was reportedly the favorite of Brazilian pilots — it is not in the same class as the twin-engined Rafale or Super Hornet. The Gripen is roughly half the empty weight of both and can carry less ordnance. This isn’t to say that Brazil’s choice was not justified — it is entirely possible that the country judged the less expensive and less capable Gripen as sufficient for its defense needs. This theory is particularly likely given that before last week’s surprise announcement the FX-2 program’s final selection was thought most likely to be delayed until at least 2015, partially due to the high cost of the Brazilian government’s 2016 Olympics infrastructure spending. If tensions between the US and Brazil had little impact on the decision to select the Gripen, then Brazilian officials are taking the opportunity to make their complaints about US spying carry greater weight by linking them to a costly loss by a US defense contractor.
Additionally, cost isn’t the only reason for Brazil’s selection. A piece by Deutsche Welle Portuguese also suggested that the Gripen’s small size is better suited to future efforts to replace the Brazilian Navy’s outdated A-4 Skyhawk aircraft. “If a different option was chosen, we would not be able to land neither with the F-18 nor the Rafale on our aircraft carrier without major changes… In the case of the Saab, it can be developed with a view on the needs of the existing platform,” said Antonio Jorge Ramalho da Rocha, a Brazilian professor of international relations [my translation]. Indeed, the ability of the Brazilian government to participate in the design of a future Sea Gripen naval variant reportedly influenced the purchase. However, this is still a risky choice. The Brazilian carrier São Paulo is old and not fully operational, and a new, future Brazilian carrier at least over a decade off. Similarly, while operating the same type would offer the Brazilian Força Aerea and Marinha obvious logistical benefits, unlike the Super Hornet and Rafale there is no guarantee that a Sea Gripen variant will ever fly, even — due to the need for multinational funding — if Brazil is enthusiastic about flying Gripens off carriers.
Again, the Saab Gripen NG is an excellent fighter. But Brazilian enthusiasm for the lightweight fighter shouldn’t obscure that the country has made a deliberate choice towards the lowest cost, lower capability option among the FX-2 program’s three finalists. Since Brazil’s most urgent defense needs are internal and sea policing, the country has no pressing foreign security threats, and the Brazilian government faces serious budgetary pressures this choice is a valid one — especially if it contributes to Brazil one day developing and marketing a fighter of its own.