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:: December 2013 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow International Relations Enthusiasts,

So you’re walking along the street, and you get drawn into a mob. They’re angrily chanting something, and you join them and go along for a while, but then you suddenly realize you’re all shouting incoherent nonsense. You walk away, embarrassed by your mindlessness. This could happen to anybody, really. It happened to me last week. After Brazil chose the Gripen NG over Boeing’s F/A-18E/F for its FX-2 fighter buy, countless observers opined that this was the result of NSA spying on Brazilian political leaders, as leaked by Edward Snowden. My first reaction was to agree with this line. But after a few minutes, it occurred to me that, alas, the mob was being completely ridiculous. Permit me to walk you through my epiphany.

The basic problem with the mob’s FX-2 view is that it reduces the Brazilian Government and Brazilian Air Force to the level of little children. “We were going to buy something twice as heavy and twice as expensive as anything we have ever operated, something that’s much more capable, something that would have boosted our strategic reach and something that we can operate from our aircraft carrier,” the Brazilians are purportedly saying, “but you were monitoring our text messages and Angry Birds games, so we’re mad at you, and we’re going to buy something much less ambitious that’s not built by the US instead.” This view points to childish pique as the primary motivator in complex weapons sourcing decisions.

I’m not buying that. Since the Brazilians are actually quite sophisticated, let’s try crafting a different FX-2 narrative. We can break this down into three parts.

1. The FX-2 decision says more about the fighter market than it does about Brazil. The world fighter market, as I never tire of pointing out, is quite cost sensitive. Only seven export customers have ever purchased a fighter jet in the Super Hornet price class. In fact, the seventh high end customer, India, has yet to officially sign, as the MMRCA deal for Rafales has yet to be consummated. Brazil, of course, has never belonged to this elite group.

2. Brazil faces no major strategic threats, and their potential land and air adversaries are trivial. The rest of the continent consists of friendly nations and basket cases. As a result, the BAF has never bought anything new heavier than an F-5. The heaviest fighters the BAF has ever operated, 12 used Mirage 2000s, will be retired after just seven years of service. Since the BAF’s primary missions consist of drug interdiction and patrolling the Amazon, it isn’t really clear that they need anything more than a single engine medium weight fighter, basically just something with a radar and supersonic speed. The BAF also has a history of not being able to operate planes for cost reasons when their budget heads downward, so keeping a low cost profile is important. The Gripen NG’s operating costs are about half of the Super Hornet’s. It’s quite likely that the BAF has wanted the Gripen all along.

3. The Brazilian economy is in grim shape. Once a proud BRIC charter member, Brazil’s GDP fell by 0.5% in the third quarter of the year. At the start of the year the government predicted 4.5% growth in 2013. Instead, this will be the third year in a row that Brazil grew less than 3%, and that was after the country was clobbered by the 2008/2009 meltdown. Meanwhile, the real has fallen significantly, and inflation is rising. The idea that this would be a perfect time for the country to make a big strategic leap and join that elite top fighter market tier is frankly absurd.

Bottom line for this more realistic FX-2 narrative: people say this contest was politicized. It wasn’t. Rather, it was the delivery of the pre-determined outcome that was politicized. Brazil went with the lowest cost option that gets the job done. But the announcement gave their political leadership and media an opportunity to criticize the US for the NSA spying revelations. And Brazil has a history of using fighter choices to grind a political axe. When then-President Lula tentatively picked the Rafale in 2009, he lost no time in following it up by saying that Chicago would lose to Rio de Janeiro in the Olympics contest, and that this would be Obama’s “second defeat” after FX-2.

FX-2 caps a few great months for Saab, with Gripen NG contracts also coming from Sweden and Switzerland. Another intriguing development is their new working relationship with Embraer, which will act as some kind of co-prime on the program. Both Saab and Embraer regret abandoning the regional turboprop transport market, and both have expressed a desire to get back into it. This would be the basis for a strong collaboration. Then again, the history of cross-border regional aircraft cooperative programs is (almost) unblemished by success (ATR being the sole exception, with many failures).

Meanwhile, Boeing’s military unit has had three extremely rough developments in three extremely rough months. In September, the F-15 Silent Eagle was killed by South Korea’s FX-3 announcement, and the C-17 line was slated for closure in 2015. But perhaps worst of all, Brazil’s FX-2 was the last opportunity for an F/A-18E/F deal before Boeing needs to make a tough choice: the company says it needs to decide in March 2014 whether or not to use its own money to keep long lead item production going. If it doesn’t, the last plane on order will be delivered in 2016.

Teal Group’s F/A-18E/F report, updated this month, now calls for production to end in 2016. While the Super Hornet still has a chance in the Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, and UAE competitions, these may not be decided for another few years (last week’s UAE announcement that it was ending talks with Eurofighter offers hope for Boeing, but perhaps not quite enough). While a faction of the US Navy would love more Growlers or Super Hornets, recent efforts to add procurement cash in FY 2015 were quickly quashed by OSD.

As for the third FX-2 competitor, Dassault, there’s little to say. Until MMRCA is signed, they’ll have gone almost a quarter of a century of trying with at least a score of Rafale sales campaigns, and exactly zero firm contracts. That’s got to be some kind of record, particularly since all the company’s previous fighters (all single engine medium weight planes) saw two thirds of their orders come from export customers. Again, the top end of the fighter market is an extremely difficult environment.

In addition to the F/A-18E/F, Teal Aircraft reports this month include the Su-30/T-50, CH-47, AH-64, E-3 AWACs, and the B-2. All the very best in the New Year.

Yours, ‘Til I’m In A Mob That’s Chanting Sensible Things,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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