Saturday, September 18, 2010

Brazil Building Itself Into Regional Military Power

Brazil's signing of a new strategic cooperation accord with Britain - adding to a pile of similar deals with other European countries and the U.S. - has underlined its ambition to become Latin America's pre-eminent military power.

The memorandum of understanding inked Sept. 14 on board the British helicopter carrier HMS Ocean opened the way to a possible purchase of 11 British warships to renew Brazil's navy.

A more-developed pact with France has already led to the purchase of five French submarines, one of which will be outfitted to run on nuclear power, 50 military helicopters, and placed French-made Rafale jets in the lead position for a tender to supply the Brazilian air force with 36 fighter planes.

Other accords have also been signed with the U.S., Italy, Russia and Poland.

Brazil's aim is not only to renovate its armed forces, which have long been getting by with outdated materiel, but to defend increasingly valuable natural resources and to put muscle behind an expansive foreign policy which has seen Brasilia take on an important role in the region and beyond.

The impetus of the beefing-up of Brazil's defense capabilities came from a strategic review adopted by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two years ago.

Brazil was seeking to "consolidate its power of dissuasion to support the new role the country is taking on," said Sabrina Medeiros, an international relations expert at Brazil's Naval War School.

For the foreign countries rushing to sell it hardware, "Brazil is already seen as a trustworthy partner," she said.

A key change in the way Brazil was buying its war machinery, though, was the demand that technology be transferred in each deal.

No longer would the country simply buy planes or ships off-the-shelf - now it wants the know-how to develop its own defense industry to one day be self-sufficient and even a regional exporter.

A chief focus of the strategy is to be able to defend potentially vast deepwater oil fields off southeastern Brazil - deposits that could turn the country into one of the world's top oil exporters. Protecting the Amazon forest from interlopers is also a key goal.

The Brazilian government's determination to not be reliant on any one military supplier means it has augmented its purchases with 24 Russian Mi-35M helicopter gunships, and is considering acquiring 2,000 armored vehicles from Italy over the next two decades.

Italy is also in early competition with Britain to supply Brazil's navy.

But the fighter-jet purchase, which France thought it had in the bag before Brazil backstepped this year, is the crown jewel of the military overhaul.

That tender, worth between $4 billion and $7 billio, will be decided by the end of the year, according to the government.

As well as the Rafale, it is weighing two other jets: the NG Gripen by Sweden's Saab, and the F/A-18 by U.S. group Boeing.

Brazil has said the jets will be the cutting edge of its air force for the next 30 years, and it may end up expanding the fleet to more than 100 in the decades to come, with an eye to selling its own versions to Latin American neighbors.

At the same time, Brazil wants to develop its own heavy-lift transport plane to supersede the U.S.-made Hercules C-130.

Although still in the design stage, national plane maker Embraer says there is a market for 700 of the aircraft, with 12 firm orders already taken from Colombia, six from Portugal and six from Chile.

France has also expressed interest in buying 10, though that appears conditional on the Rafale winning the jet tender.

In other purchases, Brazil has signed deals to acquire 100 MAR-1 missiles from Pakistan designed to target radar installations, and is jointly developing an air-to-air missile, the A-Darter, with South Africa.

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