BRASILIA — Brazil on Monday deepened its military relationship with France by announcing plans to acquire 36 ultra-modern Rafale fighter jets -- along with the technology to build its own.
It will be the first foreign sale and a much-needed shot in the arm for the Rafales' maker, Dassault Aviation, which hitherto had failed to find any international buyer for the plane.
The imminent contract, worth an estimated four to seven billion dollars, will supply Brazil's air force for the next three decades and give it the most advanced multi-role combat aircraft in Latin America.
The public statement that talks had begun to seal the pact was issued on Brazil's Independence Day by visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
"We are definitively consolidating a strategic partnership we started in 2005," Lula said in a joint news conference in Brasilia.
The deal adds to 10 billion dollars' worth of agreements Brazil has already struck with France to buy five submarines (one to be converted to nuclear power) and 50 military transport helicopters.
Brazil's only aircraft carrier is a mothballed vessel bought from France in 2000 and put into service.
Lula, who is keen to finalize the jet deal before he completes his maximum second mandate at the end of next year, has said he believes Brazil is destined to be one of the great powers of the 21st century.
A country's "independence also has to be a technological one," he told reporters.
"That's why the decisions adopted today by France in the area of defense are so symbolic."
Brazil's government wants to give Latin America's biggest nation military muscle commensurate with its swelling economic and political clout -- and its ambitions to one day win a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council.
It also wants the capabilities to maintain control over its two key resources: its vast Amazon rainforest, and recently discovered offshore oil fields that could make the country one of the world's top 10 oil producers.
Both Lula and Sarkozy emphasized that the relationship between their countries was not one of client and supplier, but rather partners in a multi-polar world.
In a nod to that, they said in a joint statement that France would buy around 10 military transport aircraft Brazil's air force plans to build with Embraer, the national aircraft manufacturer.
Those planes, the KC-390, are designed to carry lighter loads than the troubled and delayed Airbus A400 heavy military transport plane France is committed to.
Dassault had previously lost export competitions for Morocco, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the Netherlands.
Dassault said it should finalize the sale to Brazil in 2010.
It hopes the success will boost its chances in tenders called by India, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Libya and Greece.
The Brazil contest was characterized by fierce lobbying by the makers of the three combat jets under consideration.
US group Boeing, which had put forward its F/A-18 Super Hornet used by the US Navy and Australian air force, and Sweden's Saab, promoting its upcoming and relatively cheap Gripen NG, had insisted they, too, were willing to share technology with Brazil.
But Brazil, burnt by past US vetoes on the export of Brazilian aircraft built with some US components, and the fact the Gripen featured a US-made General Electric engine and an Italian-made combat radar, demurred.
Throughout the tender process, Brazil emphasized that full technology-sharing took priority over cost.
"What's important for us is to have access to the technology to make this plane in Brazil. That's what we're currently negotiating," Lula said.
Significantly, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said the decision to begin talks with Dassault "was not adopted in relation to the other two" competing companies.
A euphoric Dassault spokesman in Paris told AFP the insinuation was limpid: "President Lula's declaration clearly means that the Rafale has won the competition."
He declined to put a precise value on the deal.
The Rafale notably features near-stealth capability and a new combat radar permitting its pilot to engage targets nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) away.
Amorim stressed to reporters the French deal "won't be a simple purchase because there will be (aircraft) construction in Brazil -- there will be a possibility for Brazil to sell these planes to Latin America."
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