* India's talks with Dassault made Brazil deal viable
* Brazil suspicious of U.S. technology restrictions
* Dassault shares up 4.3 pct, company declines comment
* Boeing says it's still in race with F/A-18 Super Hornet
By Brian Winter
SAO PAULO, Feb 13 Brazil is "very likely" to choose France's Rafale fighter jet to refurbish its air force, government sources say, a decision that would award one of the emerging-market world's most coveted defense contracts to a jet whose future was in doubt only two weeks ago.
President Dilma Rousseff and her top advisers believe that Dassault Aviation's bid to sell at least 36 Rafales offers the best terms among the three finalists, the sources told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The other two bidders in the competition are U.S.-based Boeing with its F-18 Super Hornet and Sweden's Saab with its Gripen.
Rousseff has cast the deal as a watershed decision that will help mold Brazil's military and strategic alliances for the next few decades as it establishes itself as a leading economic power. The contract will have an initial value of about $4 billion, but will likely be worth considerably more over time once maintenance and follow-on orders are included.
Rousseff previously had concerns about the Rafale because the jet had not found any buyers outside France. That raised doubts about whether Dassault would have the scale necessary to build the jets at a reasonable cost and maintain them over time.
The sources said Rousseff's concerns were assuaged when India announced on Jan. 31 that it had entered exclusive talks to buy 126 Rafales. Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim traveled to New Delhi last week to discuss the deal with Indian officials and examine documents related to Dassault's bid.
"The India deal changed everything," one of the Brazilian sources said. "With India's decision, it's now very likely the Rafale will be the winner here."
Shares in Dassault Aviation closed up about 4.3 percent, at 704.41 euros, in Paris following the news. A spokesman for the company declined comment.
Jeff Kohler, a vice president of Boeing's business development division, said on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow he believed the Brazil bid was still "up in the air."
The Brazilian sources said Dassault offered the best combination of a high-quality aircraft and the sharing of proprietary technology that Rousseff has said is very critical to the deal. Brazil hopes to use the technology to expand its own budding defense industry, led by aircraft maker Embraer .
Boeing's offer of technology has yet to be finalized, but the sources said they believe it cannot compete with Dassault's bid because the United States has previously placed tight restrictions on the sale of military technology abroad, including one incident involving Embraer in 2006.
Dassault touts the Rafale as an agile, medium-sized aircraft with low operating costs that can be more quickly deployed than its bulkier competitors. Those attributes may appeal to Brazil, which has no significant problems with its neighbors and plans to use the aircraft mainly for defensive purposes such as patrolling its recently discovered offshore oil fields.
POTENTIAL WIN FOR SARKOZY
If confirmed, the deals would enhance France's partnerships with Brazil and India, two of the world's biggest up-and-coming economic powers. They could also provide a boost to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has cast himself as a champion of French industry and an energetic salesman of the Rafale in particular as he faces a tough re-election fight this year.
The sources said that unexpected developments, especially a breakdown in India's talks with Dassault, could still cause Rousseff to change her mind.
They also said her decision would probably not be announced until after France's April-May election, in an attempt to keep the deal from becoming overly politicized.
Brazil's air force contract is one of several deals in developing countries that have been highly contested by European and U.S. defense companies as their home markets suffer due to budget cuts. Companies are also competing for jet contracts in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and South Korea.
Brazil's bidding process has been open for more than a decade, spanning three presidents and several dramatic ups and downs. Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said in 2009 that Brazil would choose the Rafale but then left office without finalizing the deal.
Rousseff was extremely close to Lula as his chief of staff, but upon becoming president in January 2011 she surprised her cabinet ministers by asking them to re-evaluate the bids from scratch. A month later, Rousseff told visiting U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that Boeing's F-18 was the best jet among the three finalists, but she still wanted better terms on the technology transfers.
Ultimately, Rousseff grew frustrated by what she perceived as Boeing's inability to improve the guarantees on the transfers, the officials said. Rousseff is a moderate leftist who has built her presidency around policies she believes will help expand Brazilian industries in areas from oil exploration to auto production.
The officials said that Rousseff remained especially wary of a 2006 incident in which the United States blocked the sale of Embraer's Super Tucano military aircraft to Venezuela's leftist government. Washington had the power to veto the deal because Embraer's planes contained U.S. technology.
In a separate incident in 2009, Embraer said it was temporarily blocked from selling commercial jets to Venezuela because they contained U.S. communications systems.
The episodes raised doubts about whether Brazil would face similar restrictions in the future with the technology it received from Boeing as part of the F-18 bid.
"Nobody's ever forgotten what happened with Venezuela," a second official said.
In a twist that may have influenced Rousseff's decision, Brazil's most vocal point-man in the confrontation with the United States in both Embraer incidents was Amorim. He was Lula's foreign minister at the time and Rousseff appointed him as her defense minister in August.
AMORIM GETS INDIAN DOCUMENTS
Joe McAndrew, Boeing's director for business development in the Americas, said that the U.S. government has given "full backing" for technology transfers as part of the Brazil bid.
"To be clear, the U.S. government will transfer to Brazil the same level of technology that is transferred to our closest allies," McAndrew said in an e-mailed statement.
Boeing has tried to compete in the bid as a cost-effective option. The F-18 is widely believed to be cheaper than the Rafale, and Boeing recently confirmed that it will offer the jet to Brazil at the same per-unit price as during the last round of bidding in 2009.
Despite her misgivings on Boeing, Rousseff was long reluctant to choose a jet that might not even be in production a decade into the future. In December, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet warned that Dassault would stop production of the Rafale in 2021 if it did not win any export orders.
Within days of India's announcement regarding talks for the Rafale, Amorim traveled to New Delhi to gauge the bid's terms and its likelihood of proceeding as planned.
Amorim told the Times of India on Wednesday that Indian officials "promised to give us some documents...such as basic rules on the tender process that we could compare to ours."
Brazil is not the only country that appears to be suddenly following India's lead. French newspaper La Tribune reported on Feb. 2 that Dassault could soon seal a sale of at least 60 Rafale fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, turning around a deal that also appeared to be a lost cause.