Obama pushes F-18 fighter jet in Brazil meeting

RIO DE JANEIRO, March 20 Sun Mar 20, 2011 10:16am EDT

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RIO DE JANEIRO, March 20 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama made a strong pitch for the Boeing F-18 jet fighter in a meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, but she did not indicate if her government had decided to buy the U.S.-made plane, the White House said on Sunday.

"The F-18 issue did come up. President Rousseff raised it," White House aide Dan Restrepo told reporters in Rio de Janeiro, referring to the leaders' bilateral meeting in Brasilia on Saturday that kicked off Obama's five-day Latin American tour.

Brazil is weighing a multi-billion dollar bid to modernize its air force, and Obama has made promoting exports to boost U.S. jobs back home a central part of his trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

"President Obama underscored that the F-18 is the best plane on offer ... in that the technology transfer package ... is equivalent to the packages that are offered to partners and allies around the world," said Restrepo, Obama's top Latin American adviser.

One factor in Brazil's decision will be Washington's willingness to authorize transfers of proprietary technology, which would help Brazil develop its own defense industry.

The F-18's main competition is seen coming from the French Rafale fighter jet of Dassault Aviation (AVMD.PA), which had been favored by Rousseff's predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Saab (SAABb.ST) is also a bidder and said last month it hoped for a Brazilian decision during 2011.

The Brazilian contract will likely be worth much more than the initial bids, which have been reported by Brazilian media to be in a $4-$6 billion range. Maintenance contracts will be lucrative, and Brazil could eventually buy more than 100 aircraft.

Rousseff's surprise decision in January to restart the bidding process for the tender was one of the earliest signs of the pro-U.S. shift under her administration. Obama hopes during his visit to capitalize on the improvement in U.S.-Brazilian ties after sometimes tense relations with Lula.

(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Paul Simao)

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