RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - A decision by Brazil's government to proceed with a $700 million purchase of supersonic fighter jets is raising questions at home and abroad about the country's military objectives.
Brazil announced this week that it plans to replace at least 12 aging Mirage fighter jets, in what is believed to be Latin America's largest military hardware purchase since the end of the Cold War. Chile purchased 10 American-made F-16 jets for $660 million in 2002.
President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had deferred the purchase in January, saying social spending was more important. This week, though, without explanation, the fighter jet purchase was on again. Da Silva's reversal shocked some social reform advocates.
"Why is there no money for social spending, but there is money now for jets?" asked Jose Antonio Moroni, director of the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies in Brasilia.
Brazilian defense officials met Thursday to discuss bidding rules with the five international teams competing for the purchase. A Brazilian air force spokesman said there was no deadline, but newspapers reported that a winner would be picked by January.
Lockheed Martin, the Maryland-based maker of the F-16 fighter jet, is among the bidders.
"We look forward to learning more specifics about the Brazilian government's plan for renewing this competition, and we will respond accordingly," said Lockheed spokesman Jeffery Adams.
Many experts give home-field advantage to a bid by France's Dassault Aviation, maker of the Mirage fighter, because it has teamed with Embraer, Brazil's fast-growing aircraft manufacturer.
"Embraer is confident it has the best solution for the Brazilian government," the company said in a statement to Knight Ridder.
Russia's Sukhoi, maker of the SU-35, is bidding. So is its rival, RAC-MIG, the Russian maker of the MiG-29. Rounding out the competition is an Anglo-Swedish consortium that makes Grippen fighter jets.
Brazil promises to select the bid that offers the best transfer of aircraft technology to its aviation industry.
Some military analysts question Brazil's need for fighter jets when its biggest security threat comes from smugglers, guerrillas and drug traffickers operating along its Amazon jungle borders with Colombia and Peru.
"They don't need these kinds of planes for that terrain," said Raul Sohr, a military analyst in Santiago, Chile. He said Brazil needs slow planes that fly at low altitudes to support troops in jungles or remote rough terrain.
The purchase may spark unease in Argentina, where the air force relies on jets from the 1980s while neighbors to the west and north are modernizing.
"I think our government will play it down, say it doesn't break the regional equilibrium," said Julio Cirino, an Argentine security expert, who added that his country already lags behind its neighbors. Brazil's buy "doesn't break the balance," he said. "It has already been broken."