The global arms trade runs to billions of dollars, but few such deals attract as much media attention as Brazil's recent tender, for the purchase of 36 combat aircraft which includes an agreement on production of another 84 planes under license.
Media interest in the tender grew after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was inaugurated on January 1, 2011, annulled the results of the previous tender.
A modest beginning
The core of the Brazilian Air Force consists of obsolete U.S. F-5 fighters made in the 1960s and 1970s (50 to 60 aircraft) and 12 French Mirage-2000 planes made in the 1980s. It also has in excess of 50 Brazilian-Italian AMX assault aircraft and approximately 100 Super Tucano light attack, counter insurgency and pilot training planes all designed and manufactured in Brazil.
Brazil's 12 to 15 Mirage III fighters are rarely used because they are both worn out and obsolete.
The Brazilian Air Force has a combat capacity way below the country's economic potential, especially considering how hard it is working to enhance its global political role.
The first tender, known as the F-X, was announced in 1999, when Brazil planned to replace its obsolete Mirage III fighters with one or two squadrons of modern aircraft. It was ready and willing to spend up to $700 million to purchase between 12 and 24 fighter planes.
Almost all the world's main aircraft producers took part in the tender, offering modified versions of their most popular multirole fighter aircraft: Lockheed Martin's F-16, the Mirage-200BR made expressly with Brazil in mind, Sweden's latest fighter plane the JAS-39 Gripen, and Russia's MiG-29SMT Fulcrum.
Russia's other largest combat aircraft producer, Sukhoi, has also taken an interest in the Brazilian market and planned to offer it a Su-35 fighter, an early model of the Su-27� Flanker-E/F.
However, French producers were expected to win that tender.
A growing appetite
But due to economic problems the tender never materialized. Brazil made an interim decision to buy 12 used older-model Mirage-2000 fighters, allowing it to put off the whole issue of replacement until 2007.
By that time, Brazil's appetite had grown. It no longer only wanted to replace the obsolete Mirage III, but also the F-5 and AMX planes, and it had also increased its acquisition target from between 12 and 24 to 120 aircraft. Of that number, 36 were to be purchased outright and the rest manufactured under license in Brazil.
Since the contract price increased to $6-$10 billion, all the various bidders hurried to offer Brazil newer planes. The United States, ready to supply F-16s, also offered the latest model of its main combat aircraft, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. France, which no longer produces the Mirage-2000, rolled out Rafale. A consortium of three European companies put their Eurofighter Typhoon on the table, while Sweden's SAAB once again offered its JAS-39.
Russia, meanwhile, unveiled its latest design, the Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E (formerly the Su-27M).
The tender was expected to be won by whichever participant was willing to offer Brazil technology, that is, the option of producing more planes, itself, under license, with a view to upgrading its aircraft-building industry.
European producers led the race, while the U.S. bid was hamstrung by their insufficient willingness to share their expertise and technical know-how.
The reason Russia dropped out of the race was more complicated: Brazil was expecting it to supply Su-35BM fighters in exchange for the licensed production of Embraer civilian aircraft in Russia. However, this would have had a negative impact on Sukhoi's own plane project, the Sukhoi Superjet 100, and was therefore blocked.
The second tender collapsed due to the European fighters' exorbitant prices. As a result, Brazil's new government made two decisions: first, it would hold yet another tender and second, among other options, its Air Force should consider buying Russia's Su-35BM fighter.
Analysts say that the possibility of Brazil buying a Sukhoi plane could push the European companies to be more flexible over their prices and even prompt the Americans to consider a technology transfer. However, the Su-35BM may yet win the tender, especially because, since 2007, its prestige has been boosted by its successful performance in trials and mass production for the Russian Air Force.
On top of that, Sukhoi's reputation across Latin America grew on the back of Venezuela's Su-30MK2 purchase.
The final argument in Russia's favor is the T-50, otherwise known as the PAK FA, a fifth-generation fighter-jet Sukhoi is currently developing.
Rumors that Russia and Brazil might join forces on a fifth-generation fighter plane first appeared last spring, and have not been refuted. Since Russia and India are allegedly ready to create a joint venture to manufacture the T-50 planes, Russian-Brazilian cooperation in this field is now a very real possibility, especially considering the two countries' friendly relations.
The supply of the Su-35BM planes, including fifth-generation equipment and materials, could be the first step toward delivering the T-50. If Russia makes this offer, it is almost guaranteed to win the tender.
The �-50's main rival, the U.S. F-22, is not currently being exported and there are no other similar planes on the market, with the exception of China's J-20, and experts remain divided over its advantages.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.