BRASILIA, Brazil, April 8 (UPI) -- Adding to acrimony over a lucrative defense deal, Brazilian prosecutors have agreed to probe a multibillion-dollar contest for the sale of advanced combat aircraft to the Latin American nation.
The deal, expected to replenish Brazil's aging fleet of fighters, has pit aerospace giants from France, the United States and Sweden -- all eyeing to expand the reach of their defense exports in a heated contest for the sale of 36 combat aircraft to Brazil.
The probe stems from what a prosecution source claims to be an unfair preference of France's Rafale combat aircraft despite its steep price tag.
Aerospace giants competing for the contract 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 French bid has long been considered the favorite among Brazil's political elite -- primarily that of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The military though has been leaning toward the less expensive and easier-to-maintain Gripen.
"The Brazilian government, because of external political factors, has decided to choose the Rafale, ruling out the Gripen and Super Hornet which were put forward at a lower price," the unnamed Brazilian prosecution source was quoted saying in a report by Defense News.
"That is against economic principles," the source added.
Last month Brazil's Defense Ministry said it would release final details of the estimated $6 billion procurement deal in early April.
All the contenders have met technical specifications and relevant reports have been delivered to the Defense Ministry.
The probe followed statements by Brazil's defense minister indicating that the government's pick of the French Rafale afforded a better deal for the country.
Speaking at a hearing in Brazil's Congress, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said the French bid was the only offer that guaranteed full technology transfer -- a sweetener that allows Brazil to assemble the jets domestically and sell them to regional allies.
"This is a political option for the government," Jobim said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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 locked in a deal, issuing a statement that negotiations for the purchase had begun when the tender process had not been concluded.
Should the deal succeed with Brazil, it will mark Rafale's first export order.