Dassault’s competitors are breathing a little easier after Wednesday’s announcement by the Brazilian Defense Ministry denying their contest for the purchase of 36 fighter aircraft to be decided and complete.
This news was passed around on mobile phones from hand to hand in a room full of Gripen officials, trying to will their hastily pulled-out reading glasses to provide some insight into the seemingly inscrutable workings of the Brazilians.
The news of the reprieve is greeted with honest bewilderment. “We don’t know what’s happening,” said one official from the Swedish vendor, a rival to Dassault’s Rafale of France for the Brazilian order. Indications are also being drawn from the absence of the Brazilian Air Force chief at the announcement of the deal by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and French President Nicholas Sarkozy. While the technical evaluation process is admittedly complete, it is indicated that the Brazilian Air Force is yet to make up its mind about the order.
The military commerce relationship between Brazil and France, being seen by many to be virtually ensuring the selection of Rafale to be a foregone conclusion, is also being claimed by competitors to be one of the reasons why the decision is still up in the air. “They (Brazil) have past experience of working with the French. And maybe that is also why they’re not so quick about deciding on Rafale,” said the man from Sweden, who did not wish to be identified.
While political considerations are sure to have a role in any decision on a purchase of fighter aircraft by Brazil or India, Gripen’s strategy is not to overtly compete in this arena by minimizing the impact of politics on Gripen’s chances in either country. “Our objective is to ensure our proposal is of the highest standard, so that merit cannot be ignored.”
This is not the first time Gripen is grappling with political considerations. “Poland liked the Gripen. But they took a decision to go with an American aircraft. These things happen and we’re quite aware of it,” he says, indicating a high-level visit by a delegation of the Swedish government and business to India in November. “It is not that the political aspect is completely absent,” he submits.
Speaking separately, Edvard de la Motte Campaign Director of Gripen, says, “Sweden will not try to convince India or put political pressure on India. What Sweden can provide is the right product, the technology transfer and being a very reliable friend and I think India is big enough to buy from Sweden,” indicating India to be independent enough to withstand political pressure and decide on the basis of merit.
He doesn’t think the Brazilian decision is of significance for the Indian MMRCA. “I don’t think the Brazilian selection will really effect India. I think India and the Indian Air Force have defined their requirements and will be looking for the best platform, the best deal for India,” he says.
But de la Motte does admit to similarities between the requirements for a fighter aircraft from the two countries. “I think India and Brazil are looking for the same kind of aircraft. That doesn’t necessarily say that they’re the same requirement, because they aren’t. The similarities are probably strongest in terms of the technology transfer and the indigenous capability. But the Brazilians go about it a different way than India. In Brazil, for instance, the fact that we are a development program is a very, very strong point. Based on the Brazilian experience, the only way to do technology transfer is to be part of the development program. That’s the only way to really understand the source code, to really understand how to integrate new weapons. And that doesn’t seem to be the case yet in India,” he says, repeating, “Whatever Brazil selects, Gripen or anybody else, I don’t think that’s going to be a very important factor for India. The Indian requirements are on the table and they will make up their mind on what India needs, more than looking around at what others have selected.”
The Brazil selection process is however considered simpler than India’s MMRCA trials, because of the down select, according to the unnamed Gripen official quoted above. “In India one out of six aircraft being test flown will be selected,” he says wistfully. “It becomes difficult to predict and expensive for the vendors to bring their aircraft for test flights. Although I don’t blame the Indian Air Force for wanting to fly as many aircraft as possible,” he smiles. He also thinks that with delays in India, the IAF might have to buy aircraft off the shelf and not be able to go in for joint development and perhaps may even end up with obsolete technology.
Saab’s Gripen and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet are rivals to Dassault’s Rafale for the Brazilian order, all three of whom are also competing with Lockheed Martin’s F-16, the Russian MiG-35 and EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon.
Gripen’s objective is to position itself as a replacement for French aircraft like the Mirage and Jaguar in service with countries like India and Ecuador and ‘older US platforms’ like the F-5, F-16 and F/A-18.