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Brazil jet contenders pass final test

  |   March 19, 2010 at 9:56 AM
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BRASILIA, Brazil, March 19 (UPI) -- The Brazilian air force has given its technical nod of approval to all three fighter jets competing in the country's ambitious, multibillion-dollar contest for a fresh batch of fighter jets.

The foreign aerospace giants competing for the Brazilian sale of 36 combat aircraft are France's Dassault with its Rafale fighter, Sweden's Saab with the Gripen NG aircraft, and U.S. company Boeing with the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

By some accounts, the contract for the initial 36 planes could rise to more than 120.

The aircraft are expected to renew Brazil aging fleet of combat aircraft. It has long been suggested that France's pride, the Rafale fighter, stands as the preferred pick of the Latin American country.

Earlier this month, Brazil's defense ministry said it would release final details of the estimated $6 billion procurement deal during the week of April 5.

All the contenders have met technical specifications and relevant reports have been delivered to the defense ministry, O Estado de Sao Paulo reported.

Still, the paper and politicians added, the final decision will rest with the country's political leaders, mainly that of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who has insisted that his pick would be based on "political and strategic" reasons -- not just the price tag.

Officials details concerning the bids have been scarce but local media have long reported that the Dassault bid remains the most expensive at about $10 billion, including maintenance costs.

The Boeing package is valued at $7.6 billion and the Saab offer at $6 billion, Folha da S. Paolo reported.

What makes the French bid attractive, experts say, is France's sweetener of transferring all technology related to the supersonic Rafale so that Brazil, bent on becoming the lead military power in South America, could assemble most of the jets itself and sell them regionally.

Brazil has already signed a deal with the French for the construction of five submarines in Brazil. The deal also includes building a nuclear-powered vessel.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has personal prestige knotted into the deal. In September 2009, Sarkozy and his Brazilian counterpart looked locked in a deal, issuing a statement that negotiations for the purchase had begun when the tender process had not been concluded.

Sarkozy has rallied to the support of Dassault's export prospects.

"The sale of combat planes is a political act," Dassault Chief Executive Officer Charles Edelstenne said from the company's headquarters outside Paris. "The Elysee is doing a superb job," he said, referring to the French presidential palace.

The aerospace company has taken orders for 180 Rafales, but all of those are destined for the French air force.

Should the deal succeed with Brazil, it will mark Rafale's first export order.

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