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Cables Show Inner Workings of Global Fighter Deals

by John Reed on December 6, 2010

Maybe you’re sick of WikiLeaks by now, but it has provided a couple of good insights to inner workings of several fighter jet competitions around the world where American-made jets are in the running.

In one case, leaked cables show how U.S. diplomats urged Washington to delay giving Sweden’s Saab Gripen fighter the latest American radar technology. This move was aimed at minimizing the appeal of the Gripen over the F-35.

Another cable shows a Brazil wary of being beholden to U.S. interests despite feeling that Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet may the best jet for the money.

In the first case, U.S. diplomats were so concerned that if Norway chose the Gripen over the F-35 it would sway the Netherlands and Denmark to follow suit that they urged the State Dept not to allow the Gripen to be equipped with powerful AESA radars until after Norway chose which fighter to buy.

From Steve Trimble’s The Dew Line:

“Norway’s decision on this purchase will either end or sustain one of the strongest pillars of our bilateral relationship and could impact subsequent Danish and Dutch decisions on the F-35, affecting NATO joint operational capacity and the vulnerability of the Northern Flank,” the diplomat identified only as Whitney wrote in the cable.

It was an important decision, and the US had to play its cards carefully.

But the embassy had already acted to thwart Gripen’s bid in Norway behind the scenes. Saab had previously requested that the US approve a Raytheon-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — a key upgrade as the non-stealthy Gripen competed against the stealthy, Northrop Grumman AESA-equipped F-35 in Norway. Because the AESA was American technology, the US was not obligated to release the radar to a foreign competitor.

So it didn’t.

“Given this potential impact of AESA releasability on the Norway competition, and possibly the Denmark competition,” says a US cable dated 8 July, “we suggest postponing the decision on AESA releasability for the Gripen until after Norway’s decision in December.”

In another cable, it sounds like Brazil really wants to buy the battle-tested Super Hornet over the unproven Gripen and France’s expensive Rafale (which was described as yesterday’s technology by the King of Bahrain). Yet for multiple reasons, the nation insisted on looking at the Rafale and Gripen so much that most observers have long doubted the Super Hornet will win the competition.

From AFP:

One U.S. cable signed by Lisa Kubiske, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, noted: “While the Rafale’s high price and doubts about the Gripen’s development would seem to make the Super Hornet the obvious choice, the fact remains that [Brazilian President Lula Da Silva] is reluctant to buy an American aircraft.”

U.S. diplomatic cables released Sunday by WikiLeaks said the head of the air force, Brigadier Juniti Saito, last year made it clear to U.S. officials that he considered “there was no question from a technical point of view that the F18 [sic] was the superior aircraft.”

One factor in favor of the Rafale is Brazil’s strategic partnership with France, according to AFP.

Lula, however, said he would make the final decision based on political imperatives — a condition favoring France, which has a strategic pact with Brazil.

According to the article, one of the biggest factors pushing the Gripen toward the head of the pack is the fact that Saab is willing to give Brazil access to nearly all technical data on its jet –including the software source code —  while the U.S. and France will give only “relevant” information.

Still, the U.S. tried to do as much as possible to sweeten the deal, states a cable from January 2009:

The key step for the USG over the next month will be to get the question of technology transfer right. While the Brazilians will not get the keys to the proverbial candy store, there should be enough sweeteners in Boeing’s offer to make the case that the SUPER HORNET includes the best tech. The offer must also address the key points raised in ref b (source codes, weapons integration, etc.).

It goes on to say that the U.S. should work to ensure that a Boeing award would provide the opportunity for numerous partnerships with the Brazilian defense industry including the “possibility of integrating Brazilian made weapons on the F18 at some point.” It also urges U.S. President Barack Obama to make a strong statement advocating the SUPER HORNET President Lula at the earliest opportunity.”

Washington was also urged to dissuade notions that the U.S. would have undue power over Brazil and the overall weapons deal. This was seen as especially important after the U.S. killed the sale of F-16s to Venezuela.

As important as approving the tech transfer itself to overcome the assumption that the USG can step in at a later date to restrict the transfer. While we can explain that we stopped transfer of F16s [sic] to Venezuela because of setbacks in democratic governance and interference in the security of neighboring states — circumstances unthinkable in the Brazilian context — the Brazilians tend to take the fact that we stopped the transfer as evidence that the United States is an unreliable supplier. To combat this assumption will require ongoing high level USG assurances, both directly to the Brazilian leadership and publicly, that we can foresee no circumstance in which we would restrict the transfer of fighters to Brazil.

The cable then goes on to say that several high ranking Brazilian“Foreign Minister Amorim and Minister for Strategic Planning Roberto Mangabeira Unger will also have a say; both see a purchase from the U.S. as leading to an undesirable ‘dependency.’”

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