Opinion, by Mona Sukkarieh
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The recent visit by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to India is more than a mere exercise in diplomatic exchange. Her participation at the BRICS summit on March 29th in New Delhi was followed by an official state visit during which she held bilateral talks with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over two days. The two countries share a strategic partnership and defense cooperation was at the top of their discussion agenda.
Both countries have engaged in significant modernization of their armed forces and are major arms importers. A SIPRI report released last month shows that India is the world’s largest recipient of arms, accounting for ten percent of global imports for the period between 2007 and 2011. Brazil narrowly misses the top thirty but with expenditures totaling US$28 billion last year, it is an important player in the defense market.
Cooperation with BRICS countries is being consolidated, including in the field of defense: Since 2008, the navies of Brazil, India and South Africa have been holding joint wargames every two years, known as IBSAMAR. Brazil has established a partnership with South Africa to develop the fifth generation A-Darter short range air-air missile and it equipped its army with Russian attack helicopters Mi-35M. Cooperation with India is considered a strategic asset for both countries. In 2010, Brazil and India formed a defense panel to strengthen bilateral cooperation, particularly in aeronautics and ship building.
Like India, Brazil plans to reequip its air force with a new generation of fighters and has therefore kept a watchful eye on the Indian Air Force’s own Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Interestingly, Brazil dispatched its minister of defense to New Delhi just a few days after India announced that the French Rafale was selected for exclusive negotiations.
The French fighter jet is also in competition with the American F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Swedish Gripen in the Brazilian FX2 bid to supply the Air Force with 36 aircrafts valued at between US$4 and US$7 billion. Final decision is expected around mid-2012.
Initially, the Rafale was the preferred option of former President Lula da Silva. However, after she was elected President, Rousseff chose to postpone final decision due to budget cuts. She is said to prefer the F/A-18 but the Brazilian establishment is historically suspicious of the U.S. and that was reinforced by a recent American decision to cancel a US$355 million contract to purchase twenty Embraer Super Tucano light aircraft for unspecified reasons.
As in the Indian MMRCA competition, transfer of technology will be an essential part of the deal and indeed in any project of alliance, as indicated recently by the Brazilian minister of education who went on to say “we no longer intend to have the passive attitude we used to have throughout our history.” Brazilians are expecting the final decision to boost national development and the local defense industry.
Brasília is therefore requesting that some of the aircrafts be built in Brazil. This seems to favor the French Rafale, its manufacturers having already consented just as much to the Indians earlier this year. In addition, the new RBE2 radar with active electronically scanned array (AESA) that will equip the Rafale will give it considerable advantage by boosting its range, interception and tracking abilities in a multi-threat environment as well as protection from electronic jamming, making it the only European fighter with such a technology.
Regardless if the Rafale will be selected or not, there’s an interesting pattern that’s worth highlighting: Alongside concerted efforts to strengthen ties among themselves, BRIC countries seem to enjoy particularly good relationships with France. Russia is finalizing the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. India is negotiating the procurement of 126 Rafale fighters after securing a deal to buy Scorpene-class conventional submarines. Brazil also acquired four Scorpene submarines in addition to the construction of a nuclear submarine.
A key element in all those deals is French commitment to transfer of technology and local assembly, something other traditional western powers seem more reluctant to engage in. In addition, BRICS countries want to maintain good relationships with the West and France seems to be benefitting from its position as a western power, and the ties it established with developing countries might explain why it is perceived with less suspicion compared to other western powers.
Mona Sukkarieh is a specialist in geopolitics and strategic studies.