With budget cuts and programme delays, Brazil'smilitary faces tough procurement choices as the government focuses its attention elsewhere

At no other time in recent history has the Brazilian government been under so much pressure to modernise its armed forces. Along its north-western and western borders, South America's largest country has to contend with burgeoning illegal air traffic linked to drug smuggling. This is compounded by the distant, but real, threat of Colombia's FARC guerrillas stepping up their cross-border activities.

Maintaining effective control over an area larger than western Europe that borders seven other countries would be a tall order even for armed forces with larger defence budgets than Brazil's. The country's military needs are not restricted to land: maritime requirements are equally pressing. Maintaining credible surveillance of a 7,500km (4,660 mile) coastline and its 370km exclusive economic zone stretches Brazil's air force and navy resources.

To a greater or lesser degree, the air arms of Brazil's three armed forces have several standing requirements to modernise or replace existing aircraft. Many of these date back to the 1990s, or earlier, but have not been adequately addressed over the years. Budget constraints have played a key role in delaying many of the aircraft procurement or modernisation programmes proposed by the Brazilian air force, navy and army.

Military procurement planners did not have high expectations of the recently sworn-in government of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva in view of his proposed hunger relief programme, conceding that some projects might see a 12-month delay. But the recent $4.3 billion cut in this year's federal budget came as an unwelcome surprise and has jeopardised the scheduling of many high priority programmes.

Especially hard-hit is the Brazilian air force, which has several procurement and modernisation programmes running in parallel. With the scheduled deactivation of several aircraft types converging in the second half of this decade, the service has been adversely affected by the many postponements throughout the 1990s.

The air force relies on a mixed fleet of Northrop F-5E/F and Dassault Mirage IIIEs - the latter earmarked for deactivation next year while the F-5s undergo a $285 million upgrade. The air force developed the F-X BR programme to replace both fighters. Established in the early 1990s, the F-X BR programme has suffered many delays, mostly related to budget difficulties but more recently to political factors. With its initial 24-aircraft procurement phase budgeted at $760 million, the cost of this key programme could reach around $2.3 billion if carried out in its entirety.

F-X BR freeze

Shortly after the new defence minister took office in January, and on the eve of the announcement of a winning contender, the government froze the F-X BR programme for 12 months. Nonetheless, defence minister José Viegas signalled the government's intent to give the go-ahead for the programme in the second half of this year. "We will not relaunch the programme, but if the contending companies wish to enter better bids they may do so," he said. Battling for the F-X BR order are the Dassault Mirage 2000-5BR, Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52-Plus, RSK MiG-29SMT, Saab/BAE Systems Gripen and Sukhoi Su-35.

Viegas has provided a glimmer of hope for F-X BR and confirmed that procurement of Embraer's ALX turboprop light-attack aircraft will continue. The same cannot be said for the F-5BR modernisation programme and the recently announced $596 million contract with EADS Casa for 12 C295 tactical transports and modernisation of the air force's eight Lockheed Orion maritime patrol aircraft to P-3BR standard.

Although no firm decision has been taken, available information indicates the F-5BR's development and production schedule will be revised, while contract signing with EADS Casa will be postponed to year-end at the earliest. Moreover, the modernisation of the air force's 54 Embraer/Alenia/Aermacchi A-1/A-1B AMX strike aircraft might be permanently shelved in view of the budget restrictions.

The government's decision to trim the air force's budget has slashed hopes that the service will see the launch of other priority procurements such as the TFX, the tentatively named lead-in fighter trainer replacement for the Embraer AT-26 Xavante, scheduled for phase-out as of 2005. Negotiations are under way to purchase two-seat F-5Fs from the Swiss air force under a $240 million deal, and the Brazilian air force does not foresee the issuing of a TFX request for proposals within the next 18 to 24 months - which might lead to delays in the allocation of AT-29 ALXs to light strike units based in the Amazon.

Similarly, the air force expects a delay in the launch of a programme to replace its BAe 125-400 VIP transport aircraft, some of which were delivered to Brazil in 1969. The proposed $700 million RC-X programme to replace the Brazilian air force's fleet of KC-137 tanker/transport aircraft is expected to be rescheduled to 2007-8.

Two other procurement programmes run the risk of delays. One covers the acquisition of 20-24 fixed-wing utility aircraft to replace an equal number of Embraer EMB-110 freighters in 2005-10. Within roughly the same timescale, the Brazilian air force expects to start phasing out its fleet of EMB-110-based P-95A/B maritime surveillance aircraft - a high-priority requirement in view of the air force's maritime patrol commitments. Although discussions are under way with Embraer on development of a maritime patrol version of the ERJ-135 regional jet, the financial constraints newly imposed on the air force might lead to delays far beyond those originally envisaged.

Rotary-wing replacement

The air force's rotary-wing element has fared little better. After recently shortlisting the Boeing CH-47SD Chinook and Rosboronexport's Mil Mi-26T as candidates for the service's four-aircraft, $100 million CH-X heavylift helicopter acquisition programme, Viegas said a decision might be delayed until the second half of next year. Far more pressing for the air force is the need to replace its fleet of more than 50 Bell UH-1H utility helicopters within the next four years. Although the service has drawn up the preliminary requirements for a successor, the UH-1s will soldier on until the end of the decade despite increasing difficulties experienced in maintaining the helicopters.

Although burdened by the budget cuts like its sister services, the Brazilian navy's prospects have been improved by having its own financial resources, from port installation leases, use of navigation aids and similar services. Nonetheless, what trickles down to the navy's air arm is insufficient to cover more than one or two aircraft procurement programmes.

The naval aviation arm has a requirement to modernise or replace its mixed fleet of Sikorsky- and Agusta-built SH-3 Sea Kings. Although these helicopters have received regular updates and overhauls, the service has plans to deactivate the type in 2010. A decision is expected this month on whether to purchase new anti-submarine-warfare (ASW)/anti-surface-vessel helicopters or update the weapon systems, sensors and avionics on the 13 Sea Kings. Should it opt for new aircraft, the navy sees the AgustaWestland EH101, Eurocopter EC725 Cougar and Sikorsky S-70B Seahawk as prime contenders, with deliveries forecast for 2005-7.

Having only recently regained its fixed-wing aviation component, in the shape of ex-Kuwaiti McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, the navy is still developing its mid- and long-term carrierborne aircraft requirements. It has identified a need for a dedicated ASW aircraft, lost when the air force deactivated its Grumman S-2E Trackers. The navy has also defined a requirement for a fixed-wing airborne early-warning platform, as well as an aircraft capable of performing carrier onboard delivery.

The navy has studied available airframes, but tends towards a turboprop-powered version of the Tracker to maintain logistics commonality between the three fixed-wing requirements.

Legislation obstacle

With deliveries of Eurocopter AS532UE Cougar medium-lift helicopters ongoing under a $91 million contract for eight aircraft, the Brazilian army's air arm is perhaps the least affected by the budget cuts of the three military aircraft operators. Although its long-range plans include a force of just over 300 helicopters, that objective is 12-15 years away. Financial limitations are not the stumbling blocks in its short- to mid-term planning. The army's major problem is one firmly set in the legislative field.

With the Brazilian air force fulfiling its logistical transport needs, the country's army's air arm wants a fixed-wing transport aircraft to support helicopter units that will be based in the Amazon region. Despite examining various transport aircraft types, the service has been prevented from acquiring any by regulations limiting the Brazilian army to rotary-wing aircraft operations.

As the new government gets to grips with combating Brazil's poverty, the military faces tough budget battles and difficult procurement choices as it strives to maintain its standing as the most powerful defence force in South America. Restarting the F-X BR programme in the second half of this year will be a sign that the Lula administration sees the need for a modernised air force.

Source: Flight International