Brazil Emerges as a Military Power

The recently signed agreements between Brazil and France are about much more than the purchase of armaments. They indicate the creation of a military industrial complex, a goal which forms part of the National Defense Strategy of Brazil. This new industrial superpower, owner of the seventh largest oil reserves of the world and the world’s largest area of natural biodiversity in the Amazon, is now seeking to protect its riches and assert itself as a new military power.

Sometimes it seems the modus operandi of the large modern warfare businesses closely resembles the intrigues of a television soap opera. It took President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s announcement that he was leaning toward purchasing 35 fifth generation fighter planes from the French company Dassault, for the Swedish Saab and the American Boeing to fall over themselves to profess their unrequited love for all things Brazilian.

The companies are responding to the announcement that Brazil is renovating its aging fleet and also planning to create the largest military industrial complex in the southern hemisphere. On Sept. 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, Lula and the French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed off on the purchase of five submarines, four of them conventional and one nuclear, and 50 military transport helicopters, all for a total of USD$12 billion. At the same time, Lula announced Brazil’s intention to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets, which would increase the financial transaction to USD$20 billion.

The fighter jet story goes back to 1998. The Brazilian Air Force has 110 jets which were built in the 1970s and 80s and which are now too old and outdated for a country whose needs include patrolling 8 million square kilometers of territory, 17 million kilometers of national borders, and vast offshore oil platforms. The newest aircraft are 12 Mirage 2000s, which were bought second-hand and are well past their retirement date. By contrast, Chile has 28 F-16s, and Venezuela has 24 Sukhoi 30s, both the most advanced models available.

In the running for the contract are the French Rafale, the Swedish Gripen, and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. There is not much of a difference between them on a technical basis, but their prices do vary dramatically: each Gripen costs USD$50 million, and the Rafales are priced at USD$80 million. The advantage that the F-18 has is that it is the most tried and tested fighter plane on offer. The French, however, have from the start guaranteed to give the Brazilians the source codes—the digital heart—of the aircraft, something Boeing is unable to do without the authorization of the U.S. Congress.

Lula is building the framework which will ensure that Brazil can defend itself militarily. Photo:

Soap Opera: Three Suitors Vying for One Contract

Defesanet, the Brazilian website specializing in military affairs, maintains that the purchase of a significant arms cache is always accompanied by shady maneuvers on the sidelines, and the agreement between Lula and Sarkozy is no exception. On the night of Sept. 6, during a state dinner, Lula complained to Sarkozy about the "absurd price" of the Rafales. Shortly thereafter, the French president sent Lula a personal letter, stressing French willingness to participate in the "unrestricted transfer" of technological intelligence. The French president knew that this is a key issue for Brazil.1

Furthermore, Sarkozy raised the possibility of manufacturing the Rafale in Brazil for the Latin American market, which would reduce the overall price. That same night Lula met with his minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim, and the commander of the Air Force, as well as the ambassadors of France and Brazil to prepare the announcement which was to be made the next day following the Independence Day military parade: Brazil was to begin negotiations with Dassault for the purchase of the 36 fighter planes and 10 K-390 military transport planes. These were to be built by the Brazilian company Embraer.

The announcement was earth shaking. The Swedish and American companies sprung into action. Two days after the announcement, on Sept. 9, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia released a statement defending the F-18 Super Hornet because "we believe it is better than the opposition."2

The exact meaning of "unrestricted transfer" of necessary technology remained vague, but its inclusion served to increase tension among the rivals. Relations with the United States were already frayed at the edges since only months before the United States blocked the sale of Brazilian made combat planes, the Super Tucumano, to Venezuela because it contained some U.S.-produced components. Lula seemed to enjoy playing the game, at one point remarking, "At this rate we will soon get all the fighter jets for free."

The deadline for the submission of the proposals from the three companies was extended from Sept. 21 until Oct. 2. On Sept. 11 the Brazilian Air Force released a "clarification regarding the FX-2 Project" (FX-2 being the name given to the fleet renovation). In the document, the five criteria the government would use to evaluate the various proposals were put on public record: technology transfer, Brazilian control over weaponry, international cooperation agreements with the national arms industry, and commercial and maintenance contracts. The document added that it had asked all bidders to define clearly what they meant by "unlimited and necessary technological transfer."

In the middle of all this, on Sept. 24, two Rafale jets fell into the Mediterranean Sea. The accident provoked much discussion in the Brazilian press, with many noting that the jets had never been sold outside France. On Sept. 28, the Brazilian company Embraer, who will eventually have the contract of producing the jets in Brazil, gave its verdict at the request of the air force: it believed the Swedish Gripen are the best option, their advantage being that as the new generation Gripen has not been manufactured yet, the Brazilian company could "learn by producing" as they are "not interested in only making and supplying spare parts, but want to acquire and master the knowledge they don’t yet have."3

On Oct. 1, one day before the deadline to modify proposals, the presidents of Boeing and Saab arrived in Brazil to "launch an offensive to try and derail the French advantage."4 On that day, Boeing distributed a communiqué that reiterated there would be a transfer of technology to Brazil, the French called upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to criticize the Swedish model because it existed only on paper, while the Swedes pointed out that they were the one who had promised Brazil the most voluminous technology transfer. The president of Saab, Ake Svensson, even surmised that at some point in the future, "we might become dependent on Brazilian industry."5

In addition to all the wooing, France also promised it would defend Brazil’s ascent to a seat on the United Nations Security Council, a well-known ambition of Lula’s. All that has transpired this past month, the month of the Brazilian Fighter Jet soap opera, is astonishing in that it indicates just how much the world has changed: three of the biggest and most powerful companies of the northern hemisphere are pleading and cajoling with ever more promises to a southern hemisphere government who is ready to spend billions on buying their product. Lula and the National Defense Council will make their decision in the next few weeks.

National Defense Strategy

On Dec. 15, 2008, a 70-page document was signed by President Lula, the Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, and the head of the Office of Strategic Affairs, Roberto Mangabeira Unger. This report had taken a year to prepare, and was the work of, among others, the commanders of the Brazilian Army, Navy, and Air Force. The document is entitled "National Defense Strategy" and its aim is to present an accurate and current portrait of the state of the defense system of a country that is increasingly assuming a greater role on the international stage.6

The document extends its time scale to the year 2030 and encompasses short-, medium-, and long-term plans and projections in order to "modernize the national defense structure." It incorporates a reorganization of the armed forces, and a restructuring of both the finances and the equipment of the forces. It furthermore insists that defense should focus on three principal components: cybernetics, space, and nuclear.

The major priority, however, is the decision to concentrate on the importance of combat: "In order to dissuade (an enemy) it is necessary to be prepared to engage in combat. Technology, no matter how advanced it may be, will never be an alternative to combat. It will always only be an instrument of combat." It is here that Brazil distances itself greatly from the Pentagon, where it is believed that technology is the way to win wars that are lost on the ground. One can say that Brazil has assumed an autonomous way of thinking.

Despite noting that the Brazilian Constitution prohibits the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, the document stresses the "strategic necessity to develop and control nuclear technology." In the beginning of September, the Brazilian press revealed that Brazil could develop nuclear weapons. The same day Sarkozy arrived in Brazil, the results of a report prepared by the Military Institute of Engineering was leaked which made clear Brazil had the capacity to produce atomic weapons.7

Of special mention is the proposal to look at the finances and their disbursements. The army has always directed its attention to the south, toward a possible confrontation with Argentina, an idea with an unmistakable Eurocentric influence. It has now proposed to position the army in the middle of the country, as the real territorial threat comes from the North8 (i.e.: Plan Colombia). The air force, currently stationed in Sao Paulo, and the navy in Rio de Janeiro, will have to patrol the whole of the South Atlantic, which holds the recently discovered enormous reserves of oil which have catapulted Brazil to the seventh largest oil reserve in the world.

In addition, the navy has the job of patrolling both the mouth of the Amazon River in the North and the Paraguay-Parana in the South. Above all else, however, is protecting Brazilian unconditional sovereignty over the Amazonia region: Brazil rejects "any attempts at curtailing its decisions with respect to preserving, developing, and defending the Amazon region. Brazil alone takes care of the Brazilian Amazon, for itself and for all of humanity." This is one of the most sensitive points for the Brazilian military and they react speedily each time voices are raised calling for the "internationalization" of the Amazon region.

The section devoted to the national military defense industry is one of the most important. It stresses the "development of independent technology" with the objective of "progressively eliminating the purchase of imported products and services." It asks the state to help support private arms firms and those still unprofitable but vital components of an industry in development. In return, the state will have the right to exercise a certain control over these private firms, the logic being that the nation’s defense is always placed above private interests.

This is why, whenever Brazil purchases arms, it demands with it the transfer of technological knowledge. The four conventional submarines and the 50 helicopters Brazil is buying from the French will be manufactured in Brazil. The same will happen with the fighter jets. UNASUR guarantees Brazil the Latin American market and the agreement with the French gives Brazil the exclusive access to the sale of the technology in that market.

The autonomy or independence of a country is usually defined in the intellectual realm. The National Defense Strategy reflects this maturity and independent thinking. Point 16 of the strategy document illustrates this: "It is imperative to organize a nation’s armed forces around its own capacities, not around a specific enemy." This is a clear departure from other types of defense strategies, and, from a visionary point of view, clearly aligns itself with a philosophy of autonomy.

Toward an Autonomous Military Industrial Complex

Brazil aims to produce the majority of the military hardware it needs. It already has Embraer, the third largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, behind Boeing and Airbus. It also has Helibras, the largest producer of combat helicopters in South America, which is in partnership with EADS of Europe, and currently also makes armored tanks, a certain range of naval ship, airplanes, ammunition, and in the future plans fifth generation fighter jets and submarines. The four submarines purchased from France will be built in the shipyards of Rio.

Brazil requests technology from various countries, mainly Europe, but also from the Third World. A new Franco-Brazilian company will be created to build and arm the nuclear submarine purchased from France, while all the helicopters will be manufactured at Helibras. As for the fighter jets, the first few would be built in France but the remaining 30 will be produced by Embraer, having thus acquired the necessary knowledge to manufacture the latest generation of fighter jets.

Foreign Minister Celso Amorim was unequivocal in this respect: "The transaction involving the Rafale is not merely a purchase, because they will be manufactured in Brazil and there will be the possibility that they will then be sold throughout Latin America."9 And so Brazil will begin to play in the big leagues of the arms trade. It has even managed to secure a place within that select club of manufacturers of nuclear submarines which, until now, consisted only of the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, and France, coincidentally the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The former ambassador of Brazil in Colombia, Julio Cesar Gomes dos Santos, remarked that "the countries that buy arms are vulnerable because they are dependent on the supply of spare parts. Chavez has grounded F-16s because the Americans will not send him a single screw. Brazil has a defense industry so it has only to depend on itself. Brazil does not buy arms. We are entering into a business arrangement whereby we buy the first few planes only if the next are built in Brazil under the condition that they may be sold in the Latin American region. That is the difference."10

The military expert Juan Gabriel Tokatlian says that it is "one thing to be an emerging power in Asia, like India, or in Africa, like South Africa, but it is quite astonishing to do it in this part of the world usually considered to be the backyard of the United States."11 It is precisely for this reason that Brazil needs to distance itself gradually from the United States, without aggression or jubilation.

Nevertheless, as admirable as the steps toward autonomy are, Brazil still lags far behind the United States. Brazil proposes to spend $15 billion on defense, while the United States spends $500 billion. In 2006, only 0.6% of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP) was spent on defense research and development, while the figures for the United States are 56%, for Spain 24%, and for France 23%.12

A Rising Power in the Backyard of the United States

The recent treaty between Colombia and the United States allowing the latter country to use seven military bases in Colombia provoked much high-level military discussion in the Brazilian press. Luis Eduardo Paiva Rocha, retired general and professor at Brazil’s Officer Training Academy, published an article in Defesanet provocatively entitled, "Strategic short-sightedness and military indigence are the biggest threats to Brazilian sovereignty."13 The general criticizes the "populist hysteria" of the Bolivian leadership with regard to the Colombian military bases and points out that neither Brazil nor any other neighboring country presented an alternative: "The Colombian bases to be used by the United States would not present a problem for Brazil if Brazil had the military power which reflects the international standing in the world it purports to have. What threatens us is our weakness because ‘amongst other things, to be unarmed is to be insignificant (Machiavelli).’"

He adds that "the Brazilian Armed Forces are completely incapable of resisting an invasion from a modern military power." The threats will most probably come from those attempting to gain control of the riches of the Amazon or the oil reserves of the South Atlantic. The current commander of the navy, Julio Soares de Moura Neto, responded much in the same vein when asked to comment on the French deal by the Folha de Sao Paulo: "Brazilians must become aware of the fact that we have enormous wealth in the sea and the navy must be constantly on alert in order to defend the nation’s sovereignty."14

The admiral continues by warning that the risks have increased dramatically now that Brazil is not only an emerging economic power but also a potential oil-producing super-state. One comment in particular reveals the changed attitude toward the United States: when George Bush reactivated the Fourth Fleet and deployed it to the South Atlantic, the decision "was conveyed to Brazil neither politically nor diplomatically."

This must be why Lula, sure that Brazil is well on its way to becoming a great power in the 21st century, is also building the framework which will ensure that the country can defend itself militarily. Brazil will have the largest navy in Latin America as well as the largest air force. It will have the only military industrial complex in the region. The fact that it has sought the help of France, a country that has so openly maintained its political and military independence from Washington, is very significant.

It is possible, as maintained by the analysts of Dedefensa, that Washington will regard the actions of both Brazil and France as a "declaration of war."15 This development would fit in perfectly with the world vision as seen by the elites who benefit most from the Washington Consensus. The situation was perhaps best summarized by the Italian Dario Azzellini, a specialist in the "new wars": "War is no longer needed to establish a new economic model—war itself is the model."16

End Notes

  1. Tania Monteiro, "Carta de Sarkozy selou decisao de Lula," Estado de Sao Paulo, Sept. 10, 2009.
  2. Declaration from the Embassy of the United States regarding the bidding for FX-2, Brasilia Sept. 9, 2009.
  3. Valor, Sept. 28, 2009.
  4. O Globo, Oct. 1, 2009.
  5. Eliane Cantanhede, Folha de Sao Paulo, Oct. 2, 2009.
  6. This document can be downloaded from the website of the Ministry of Defense in various languages.
  7. Jornal do Brazil, Sept. 6, 2009.
  8. Defensive needs are concentrated in the West, the North, and the South Atlantic.
  9. La Jornada, Sept. 7, 2009.
  10. The Woken Giant, Semana, Bogota, Sept. 13, 2009.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Merval Pereira, The War Industry, O Globo, Sept. 15, 2009.
  13. Defesanet, Sept. 5, 2009.
  14. Eleonora Grosman, El Clarin, Sept. 7, 2009.
  15. "Rafale in Brazil, a Declaration of War," Dedefensa, Sept. 8, 2009.
  16. Pagina 12, June 30, 2008.




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