Cables Show Inner Workings of Global Fighter Deals

Maybe you’re sick of WikiLeaks by now, but it has provided a couple of good insights to inner workings of several fighter jet competitions around the world where American-made jets are in the running.

In one case, leaked cables show how U.S. diplomats urged Washington to delay giving Sweden’s Saab Gripen fighter the latest American radar technology. This move was aimed at minimizing the appeal of the Gripen over the F-35.

Another cable shows a Brazil wary of being beholden to U.S. interests despite feeling that Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet may the best jet for the money.

In the first case, U.S. diplomats were so concerned that if Norway chose the Gripen over the F-35 it would sway the Netherlands and Denmark to follow suit that they urged the State Dept not to allow the Gripen to be equipped with powerful AESA radars until after Norway chose which fighter to buy.

From Steve Trimble’s The Dew Line:

“Norway’s decision on this purchase will either end or sustain one of the strongest pillars of our bilateral relationship and could impact subsequent Danish and Dutch decisions on the F-35, affecting NATO joint operational capacity and the vulnerability of the Northern Flank,” the diplomat identified only as Whitney wrote in the cable.

It was an important decision, and the US had to play its cards carefully.

But the embassy had already acted to thwart Gripen’s bid in Norway behind the scenes. Saab had previously requested that the US approve a Raytheon-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar — a key upgrade as the non-stealthy Gripen competed against the stealthy, Northrop Grumman AESA-equipped F-35 in Norway. Because the AESA was American technology, the US was not obligated to release the radar to a foreign competitor.

So it didn’t.

“Given this potential impact of AESA releasability on the Norway competition, and possibly the Denmark competition,” says a US cable dated 8 July, “we suggest postponing the decision on AESA releasability for the Gripen until after Norway’s decision in December.”

In another cable, it sounds like Brazil really wants to buy the battle-tested Super Hornet over the unproven Gripen and France’s expensive Rafale (which was described as yesterday’s technology by the King of Bahrain). Yet for multiple reasons, the nation insisted on looking at the Rafale and Gripen so much that most observers have long doubted the Super Hornet will win the competition.

From AFP:

One U.S. cable signed by Lisa Kubiske, charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Brasilia, noted: “While the Rafale’s high price and doubts about the Gripen’s development would seem to make the Super Hornet the obvious choice, the fact remains that [Brazilian President Lula Da Silva] is reluctant to buy an American aircraft.”

U.S. diplomatic cables released Sunday by WikiLeaks said the head of the air force, Brigadier Juniti Saito, last year made it clear to U.S. officials that he considered “there was no question from a technical point of view that the F18 [sic] was the superior aircraft.”

One factor in favor of the Rafale is Brazil’s strategic partnership with France, according to AFP.

Lula, however, said he would make the final decision based on political imperatives – a condition favoring France, which has a strategic pact with Brazil.

According to the article, one of the biggest factors pushing the Gripen toward the head of the pack is the fact that Saab is willing to give Brazil access to nearly all technical data on its jet –including the software source code —  while the U.S. and France will give only “relevant” information.

Still, the U.S. tried to do as much as possible to sweeten the deal, states a cable from January 2009:

The key step for the USG over the next month will be to get the question of technology transfer right. While the Brazilians will not get the keys to the proverbial candy store, there should be enough sweeteners in Boeing’s offer to make the case that the SUPER HORNET includes the best tech. The offer must also address the key points raised in ref b (source codes, weapons integration, etc.).

It goes on to say that the U.S. should work to ensure that a Boeing award would provide the opportunity for numerous partnerships with the Brazilian defense industry including the “possibility of integrating Brazilian made weapons on the F18 at some point.” It also urges U.S. President Barack Obama to make a strong statement advocating the SUPER HORNET President Lula at the earliest opportunity.”

Washington was also urged to dissuade notions that the U.S. would have undue power over Brazil and the overall weapons deal. This was seen as especially important after the U.S. killed the sale of F-16s to Venezuela.

As important as approving the tech transfer itself to overcome the assumption that the USG can step in at a later date to restrict the transfer. While we can explain that we stopped transfer of F16s [sic] to Venezuela because of setbacks in democratic governance and interference in the security of neighboring states — circumstances unthinkable in the Brazilian context — the Brazilians tend to take the fact that we stopped the transfer as evidence that the United States is an unreliable supplier. To combat this assumption will require ongoing high level USG assurances, both directly to the Brazilian leadership and publicly, that we can foresee no circumstance in which we would restrict the transfer of fighters to Brazil.

The cable then goes on to say that several high ranking Brazilian”Foreign Minister Amorim and Minister for Strategic Planning Roberto Mangabeira Unger will also have a say; both see a purchase from the U.S. as leading to an undesirable ‘dependency.'”

  • Justin H

    We should pull out of the Brazilian fighter competition to show everyone that we believe it to be anti-American.

  • Trend

    As a Norwegian I’m very happy we did not opt for a second rate Swedish aircraft, built in a second rate nation.

  • crackedlenses

    Makes one wonder just how good the F-35 is compared to the other competitors…….

  • Brian

    These are all excellent planes, I think the US should let the best plane win. If LM knew that other nations could shrug them off, they might put more effort into getting the F35 out the door

  • tee

    The US ( LM ) was afraid of Norway, Netherlands and Denmark buying the Gripen NG when the F-35 was still being priced at 52 million apiece, and now it’s up to 105-155 million apiece. I wonder If any of these country’s will buy the JSF and ” IF ” they do, how many F-35’s will theses country’s buy? From 52 million ( what they were promised ) to 105-155 million today. If they’re smart they’d buy The Gripen NG it is a better aircraft.

    • Justin H

      They will probably think why buy a $100million 5th gen aircraft when we can buy a $60million 4.75 gen aircraft once the Gripen and Rafael are upgraded to their next block…

  • William C.

    International fighter competitions are often dirty business. Nothing new here.

  • eric

    The Dutch parliament is indeed up in arms about the “new and improved price tag” of the JSF, but the Gripen won’t benefit from that unless the US screw up even more. Wikileaks is not anti american and will prove that with some juicy Chinese stuff (please please Assange)

    • Locarno

      Well it won’t be him himself for a while as he’s just been arrested.

      • Maxtrue

        Assange had a long time to show he’s not anti-American. Unfortunately the message from Wired (Hanson) is that a Free Press knows no national self-interest. Besides being beyond anthropological theories, the idea Assange has taken aim at the US above all is absurd. Assange won’t get bail and now he claims he won’t go Doomsday unless he or staff is “gravely” threatened. So I suppose if he gets some Polonium poisoning, he’ll still screw the US. Here is the Wired nonsense and read the comments….

        As far as the French, here is the whole article from Ares:

  • Rolo

    I laughed at the “wikileaks is not anti American” line, very good!

  • Rolo

    “Well it won’t be him himself for a while as he’s just been arrested.”

    Indeed he won’t, he’s not been granted bail and is being put in with the sex offenders, kiddy fiddlers and such other types. I hopw he gets jumped and done in.

  • dat


    Thanks for the link to the Wired article. I had not seen that. I read the comments too and found this exchange to be insightful:

    Posted by: komi | 12/7/10 | 1:18 am |
    Right, WIRED magazine should get in line with all ANTI USA supporters of WikiLeaks … What is good about poblishing a STOLEN information, Black Mailing INTERPOL, Stealing HDD from US BANK etc etc … He is a ENEMY in WAR time … GO and talk to Talibans about freedom of speach …
    WikiLeaks is ENEMY of USA and this is the way you should write about THAT … Anyway, my subscription is done …

    Posted by: Ryan Singel | 12/7/10 | 2:55 am |
    @kobi – If you hate the wikileaks “illegal” publication of “stolen” documents, you should love that published the AT&T secret NSA spying room documents that whistleblower Mark Klein kept from when he worked at AT&T, showing exactly how the American government illegally spied on Americans’ internet usage.
    According to your theory, anything the government doesn’t want you to know shouldn’t be made public, from the Abu Ghraib torture- reported by the New Yorker – to the CIA’s black prison’s — as reported by the Washington Post. All of these were “Secret,” but based on testimony by officials who knew they were wrong. But according to your theory, those reporters were traitors.
    I think they were heroes.
    Your response makes it clear you believe in nationalism over truth. I and believe in the opposite.
    Feel free to read whatever publication you like that will toe the government line, but is not one of them.
    We’ve done more than our fair share of critical reporting on Wikileaks, and they’ve even called us a tool of the government. But feel free to find your way back to whatever publication, from Politico to the Drudge Report, that fits your unflagging belief in the goodness and infallibility of the government. We’ll still be here doing what we do when your allegiance to power flags.

  • Sean

    The Gripen NG is a great little fighter that would do fine for Brazil. With an AESA radar it would be better than the super hornet in ACM. It doesn’t have the payload the SH has but when will Brazil need that capability anyways? During Red Flag exercises the Gripen has done very well against all western fighters except the F-22. Brazil would do well choosing the Gripen over the SH and Rafale.

  • Why are source codes such a hot commodity, anyway? I’m sure it lets you make modifications that are cheaper than hardware mods, but wouldn’t you need a technical base about as big as the manufacturer?

  • UmbrellaArgument

    Not sure why any other nations even bother buying modern air assets… everyone can apparently feel confident buying deprecated aircraft because when it really hits the fan the United States is relied upon to be there anyway as a failsafe.

    To insinuate that the United States is an unreliable partner with its allies in the defense space would refute the last 70 years of history. If the only reason your jet is competitive is because the US provides it with radar, then the dependency is no different than worrying about your jet parts not arriving – either way it’s a degraded capability and in the end it’s probably more worthwhile to collaborate with the best in the business.

  • Justin H

    Brazil fighter competition must likely dead. New president might boost Super Hornet chances.

  • Mastro

    Like most of the Wikileaks- not exactly “news”. Politics has had a huge impact on arms sales. I guess the most recent non -Wiki example is how Morroco went with the F16 over the Rafale because they were PO’d at France over something.

    Greece also buys French -then US depending on what day of the week it is-

  • Justin H


    * President Silva whose term is almost up, wants the Rafael because he is pro France.
    * The Brazilian AirForce (who will be flying the jets) wants the Gripen, because its the the cheapest option.
    * The new President-elect is more pro American and that could mean a better chance for the Super Hornet.

  • Justin H