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Why Does Brazil Operate an Aircraft Carrier?

By Taylor Marvin

Former president Lula aboard the São Paulo. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República, via Wikimedia.

Then President Lula aboard the São Paulo. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República, via Wikimedia.

Brazil enjoys the unique position as the only Latin American state to operate an aircraft carrier. The South American giant currently operates a single aircraft carrier, the NAe São Paulo, which is not currently fully operational.* Its fleet of A-4 attack aircraft is antiquated and the ship suffered a major fire in 2012. The Marinha do Brasil hopes to replace the São Paulo, which will likely be retired sometime in the next decade, with two indigenously developed and more capable aircraft carriers, but this effort is only in the preliminary planning stages. Given the budgetary challenges Brazil faces, the general low priority the country assigns its military, and difficulty inherent to developing and building aircraft carriers, it will be at the very least a decade before a new carrier enters service, if the project is approved at all.

At first glance Brazil’s ambition to develop and operate an indigenous aircraft carrier is a puzzle. Fixed-wing aviation carriers are enormously expensive to build and operate. Brazil’s most pressing security concern is policing its vast interior, the country enjoys friendly relations with all of its neighbors, and South America is one of the world’s most stable and democratic regions. Brazil’s defense outlook has historically reflected this enviable situation — while the country has the highest defense spending in absolute terms in the region, at 1.5 percent Brazil’s spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than its BRIC peers. Military spending also comes at the expense of Brazil’s much more serious domestic challenges, like development and infrastructure modernization. So why does Brazil operate the São Paulo, and why does it seek to build at least one future carrier to one day fill its role?

First, Brazil does have some real need for an aircraft carrier. At over 7,000 kilometers Brazil has one of the most extensive coastlines in the world, and with its drive towards offshore energy substantial maritime interests. While the only partially-operation São Paulo’s and its ancient aircraft barely contribute to defending these interests, a future, more capable carrier could operate more capable fighter and anti-submarine aircraft. In addition to projecting power and sea control, carriers’ multipurpose nature and size make them valuable platforms for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts as well.

Secondly, carrier operation is very path dependent; that is, the decision to operate a carrier in the future is highly influenced by whether a navy has and does field one. Brazil acquired its first aircraft carrier, the World War II-era British HMS Vengeance, renamed the NAeL Minas Gerais in Brazilian service, in 1960. The Minas Gerais was retired in 2001, after the larger and more capable São Paulo was commissioned in 2000. It is far easier to naval officers and other interests to successfully lobby for retaining, rather than acquiring, carrier operations. Similarly, retiring a lone carrier without replacement, as Argentina, Australia and others have, is perceived as a greater loss of status than never operating one at all — notably, when Brazil acquired the São Paulo President Fernando Henrique Cardoso stressed the importance of Brazil ‘continuing’ to field a capable blue-water navy. More practically, building the institutional and technical resources required to fly fixed-wing aircraft off a carrier is an enormous investment. Retiring carrier operations means losing this sunk investment as well, since these skills and institutional experience must be constantly maintained. Since Brazil would like to operate at least one carrier in the future, it must operate one today to retain these resources to some degree.

Service of Public Relations of the Navy, via Wikipedia.

Service of Public Relations of the Navy, via Wikipedia.

Most importantly, the “powerful imagery and symbolism of carriers” makes them potent status symbols. In an earlier era nuclear weapons were the ultimate symbol of a state’s global power, and this symbolic draw was expected to drive widespread nuclear proliferation. However, this has largely not occurred. The diplomatic and repetitional costs of acquiring often-unpopular nuclear weapons are so high that many countries capable of developing them have opted not to — including Brazil. Free from these enormous diplomatic costs, today aircraft carriers have in many ways replaced nuclear weapons as the marker of global power, just as dreadnought battleships once were. In addition to the purely symbolic value of the “carrier club,” aircraft carriers allow states to directly participate in multilateral military or humanitarian missions, a practical “buy-in” that gives them greater influence over international bodies and policy. Even for navies unable to routinely operate their carriers, the powerful symbolism of global reach remains.

Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, all but the UK operate carriers embarking fixed-wing aircraft (the UK will shortly regain this capability). China has gone to considerable trouble to acquire its own former-Soviet carrier, and has begun construction of indigenous flattops. Russia, for its part, has kept its own Admiral Kuznetsov in service, primarily as a status symbol. Of the G4 countries, a mutually-supporting pact by Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan aimed at securing permanent seats on the UN Security Council, only pacifistic Germany does not operate any form of aircraft carrier. In addition to its outdated INS Viraat, India recently commissioned its INS Vikramaditya — based on an extensively refit former Soviet Kiev class aviation cruiser — and hopes to develop indigenous carriers in the future. While reactions to Japan’s helicopter-carriers-in-all-but-name are overblown, the type is a powerful statement of Japan’s commitment to maintaining its preeminent status in a region witnessing a naval arms race.

Finally, fixed-wing carriers are also a military status symbol that among South American countries only Brazil has a hope of operating. While Chile fields the most professional and capable military force in the region and Venezuela operates extremely formidable Russian-manufactured Sukhoi Su-30MK fighter aircraft, only Brazil possesses an aircraft carrier and has the potential to acquire another in the near future. Argentina’s ARA Veinticinco de Mayo, which together with the country’s earlier ARA Independencia were the only carriers operated by another South American country, was largely unseaworthy by the mid-1980s and decommissioned in 1997. Argentina’s economic woes and erratic governance means that it will be uninterested in acquiring another carrier in the foreseeable future, and all other South American states are either too small or too poor to acquire a carrier of their own. For a country interested in cementing its leading position in South America, this uniqueness certainly plays an important role in Brazil’s decision to field its own aircraft carrier.

* Along with the United States and France Brazil is unique in operating a Catapult Assisted Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) carrier, which uses a powerful steam catapult to launch heavy aircraft. All other navies that operate fixed-wing carriers can only fly Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) or Short Takeoff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) aircraft, which without being flung by a catapult can only takeoff lightly loaded, making STOVL or STOBAR carriers less expensive but also less capable.

Update [8/2/14]: Added the link to John Mueller’s book.  

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Happy holidays, to all those who celebrated this week. What I read this week, and best wishes for 2014.

Revisiting the question of whether Sykes-Picot will survive the Iraq and now Syrian wars.

Brent Sasley on the unfolding Turkish corruption scandal.

I missed this at the time, but Tom Nichols on the case for conventional deterrence.

More linkage from today at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Isbells – Illusion.

Gripens to Brazil, Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Brazil made the surprise announcement that it would purchase the Saab Gripen NG as part of its FX-2 acquisition program. Defense Industry Daily has a good rundown of the program and the three finalist aircraft involved.

The decision to buy the Swedish aircraft came at the expense of the two other fighters under consideration, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and is a major blow to Boeing. Brazilian officials partially attributed the decision to reject the Super Hornet — which was thought the most likely to be adopted — to the revelations by NSA leaker Edward Snowden that the intelligence agency had been intercepting communications by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, high officials, and the Brazilian partially-state-owned energy giant Petrobras. Numerous news outlets repeated the claims, with Foreign Policy writing that “Edward Snowden just cost defense contractor Boeing” “about $4 billion.” The New York Times termed the decision a “snub.”

As I wrote at the time, I doubt that the Brazilian government’s real anger over US espionage played a major role in the decision. First, at $4.5 billion for 36 aircraft the Saab bid was far cheaper than Boeing or Dassault’s, which totaled $7.5 and $8 billion, respectively. Secondly, Brazilian officials also highlighted the importance of technology transfer for both the overall FX-2 program and the decision to purchase the Gripen. In addition to building Brazilian Gripens in Brazil and a possible future profit-sharing partnership with Brazilian aircraft conglomerate Embraer, the single-engine Gripen has far more in common than its rivals with both the Dassault Mirage 2000s Brazil is retiring this month and the class of fighter the country hopes to indigenously develop and market in the future, increasing the practical value of the knowledge and experience gained from operating the Swedish jet. “When the development phase is finished we will have intellectual property about this aircraft, that is, access to everything,” commented the head of the Brazilian Air Force about the Gripen [my translation]. This technology transfer is far more important in Brazil, home to a developed civil and military aircraft industry, than in other countries acquiring foreign aircraft.

Finally, while the Gripen is an advanced and capable aircraft — it was reportedly the favorite of Brazilian pilots — it is not in the same class as the twin-engined Rafale or Super Hornet. The Gripen is roughly half the empty weight of both and can carry less ordnance. This isn’t to say that Brazil’s choice was not justified — it is entirely possible that the country judged the less expensive and less capable Gripen as sufficient for its defense needs. This theory is particularly likely given that before last week’s surprise announcement the FX-2 program’s final selection was thought most likely to be delayed until at least 2015, partially due to the high cost of the Brazilian government’s 2016 Olympics infrastructure spending. If tensions between the US and Brazil had little impact on the decision to select the Gripen, then Brazilian officials are taking the opportunity to make their complaints about US spying carry greater weight by linking them to a costly loss by a US defense contractor.

Additionally, cost isn’t the only reason for Brazil’s selection. A piece by Deutsche Welle Portuguese also suggested that the Gripen’s small size is better suited to future efforts to replace the Brazilian Navy’s outdated A-4 Skyhawk aircraft. “If a different option was chosen, we would not be able to land neither with the F-18 nor the Rafale on our aircraft carrier without major changes… In the case of the Saab, it can be developed with a view on the needs of the existing platform,” said Antonio Jorge Ramalho da Rocha, a Brazilian professor of international relations [my translation]. Indeed, the ability of the Brazilian government to participate in the design of a future Sea Gripen naval variant reportedly influenced the purchase. However, this is still a risky choice. The Brazilian carrier São Paulo is old and not fully operational, and a new, future Brazilian carrier at least over a decade off. Similarly, while operating the same type would offer the Brazilian Força Aerea and Marinha obvious logistical benefits, unlike the Super Hornet and Rafale there is no guarantee that a Sea Gripen variant will ever fly, even — due to the need for multinational funding — if Brazil is enthusiastic about flying Gripens off carriers.

Again, the Saab Gripen NG is an excellent fighter. But Brazilian enthusiasm for the lightweight fighter shouldn’t obscure that the country has made a deliberate choice towards the lowest cost, lower capability option among the FX-2 program’s three finalists. Since Brazil’s most urgent defense needs are internal and sea policing, the country has no pressing foreign security threats, and the Brazilian government faces serious budgetary pressures this choice is a valid one — especially if it contributes to Brazil one day developing and marketing a fighter of its own.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ahn Gyeon, "Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land," 1447. Via Wikimedia.

Ahn Gyeon, “Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land,” 1447. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

An in-depth look at the Brazilian Navy.

Last year more than half of all terrorist attacks worldwide occurred in three countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Development aid to autocracies from Russia and the Gulf — echos of few-strings-attached support for clients during the Cold War.

Amy Davidson argues that Edward Snowden should given amnesty … by America.

NPR profiles the Tumblr People of Color in European Art History.

Earlier this week I collected links on political violence for PVGwith a focus on foreign fighters in Syria.

Federico Aubele – En El Desierto.

Gripens to Brazil – What Role Did Snowden Play?

By Taylor Marvin

The Saab Gripen NG will be Brazil’s next fast jet. The decision to adopt the Swedish multirole fighter was first reported by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo this morning, and was later confirmed by an official afternoon press conference in the capital. Saab’s victory, which involves “an extensive technology transfer package, a financing package as well as long term bi-lateral collaboration between the Brazilian and Swedish Governments,” comes at the expense of the other two competitors in Brazil’s FX-2 acquisition program, the French Dassault Rafale and the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Citing the aircraft’s performance, the deal’s technology transfer, and costs, Brazil is now expected to purchase 36 Gripens by 2020, replacing the venerable Dassault Mirage 2000 in the Southern hemisphere’s largest air force.

The selection is big news for Brazilian military aviation, whose FX-2 program has been plagued by delays and missteps. During the 2003-2010 administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva the Gripen’s “Euro-Canard” peer was the favored choice — rare positive news for the Dassualt Rafale, which has struggled to find export sales — before falling from favor due to high costs. After Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff took office in 2011 the Super Hornet became the apparent favorite, making today’s rejection somewhat of a surprise.

For its part the Brazilian choice of the Gripen instead of the Super Hornet is reportedly due in part to this year’s revelations by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency had spied on communications by President Rousseff and Brazilian high-level officials and corporations. Brazilian outrage over US espionage has led to tensions unprecedented in the two countries’ recent history and “the NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” according to an anonymous Reuters source. But how credible are the Brazilian claims that Snowden’s disclosures played a major role in the decision to reject the Super Hornet?

Besides Russia, Brazil has perhaps been the key foreign player in the ongoing Snowden story. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s leaks of classified information, is based in Rio de Janeiro and Snowden has requested asylum in Brazil, this week writing an “open letter” to the Brazilian people and offering to help Brazilian counter-espionage efforts. NSA eavesdropping on Rousseff attracted major attention in the Brazilian press and spurred outrage in Brazil, with Rousseff herself canceling a trip to Washington in September. In the highly political world of high-profile defense acquisitions, it is entirely possible that Brazil rejected the American aircraft both as a deliberate snub and to keep its distance from reliance on the American defense industry.

But it is important to take the Brazilian claim that its post-Snowden tensions with the United States are responsible for the rejection of the Boeing bid with a grain of salt. While former President Lula’s administration had favored the Rafale, the Rousseff government cited Dassault’s high price tag — $8 billion overall — as prohibitive. The Saab bid, by contrast, totals $4.5 billion. This reflects the lower capabilities of the single-engine Gripen, which has a 31,000 lb maximum takeoff weight compared to the twin-engine Rafale and Super Bug’s 54,000 lb and 66,000 lb, respectively. While an advanced aircraft, the Gripen is not in the same class as the Rafale or Super Hornet.

Given that the Boeing deal was priced at $7.5 billion for an aircraft far more similar to the Rafale than the Gripen, this suggests that the Super Hornet was rejected for cost or technology transfer issues rather than simply political reasons. Brazil faces no major external threats and enjoys good relations with its neighbors, which is reflected in its erratic and at 1.5 percent of GDP comparatively-low defense spending, lower than its BRIC peers (Brazilian defense spending as a percentage of GDP is neither high nor low by South American standards, though it is far higher in absolute terms). With limited resources and this mild defense outlook, it is entirely plausible that Brazil judged the smaller, lighter, and more affordable Saab Gripen as sufficient for its needs. If this is the case, then comments that Brazilian anger over the Snowden revelations influenced the decision are most likely an opportune jab at America.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

John Ward of Hull, "The Northern Whale Fishery: The 'Swan' and 'Isabella'", 1840. Via the National Gallery of Art.

John Ward of Hull, “The Northern Whale Fishery: The ‘Swan’ and ‘Isabella'”, 1840. Via the National Gallery of Art.

What I read this week:

Kyle Mizokami throws cold water over the “Japan is rearming” talking point, in particularly noting the Japanese pivot from defending Hokkaido from the USSR to the maritime south.

For the first time, next year Latin America will have four female heads of state, including leading the region’s most influential countries.

Now is the time to engage Iran on human rights.

A fascinating look at how useful it is to learn Arabic. Author Brian Whitaker notes a report urging the British to learn more languages, which strikes me as something as a solution in search of a problem — for better or worse few native English speakers have to learn another language.

A recent look at the society necessary to build the Daedalus probe.

More linkage on political violence at PVG.

Peter Broderick – Floating/Sinking.

Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay

By Taylor Marvin

Uruguay has become the world’s first nation to legalize the marijuana trade. While personal recreational use of marijuana is currently legal, starting sometime after April of next year adult residents of the small Southern Cone country will be able to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug a month in pharmacies or grow six cannabis plants in their own homes. Prices for the legally-sold drug are expected to be roughly in line with the current black market price. Foreigners will not be allowed to purchase marijuana in the country. According to Reuters, critics of the law fear that legalizing the sale of marijuana will lead pot users to experiment with harder, more dangerous drugs.

It’s my hope that marijuana legalization in Uruguay and elsewhere helps finally demolish this gateway drug myth. On the face of it pot and harder drugs like cocaine and heroin have very little in common; if absent other factors using one mind-altering substance was enough to lead someone to more dangerous ones, we’d expect the more addicting and harmful alcohol to be a greater gateway. What marijuana and heroin have in common is that they’re illegal drugs. A habitual pot smoker has decided that they don’t mind breaking a pointless law, and presumably have become accustomed to purchasing prohibited drugs from criminals. It’s trespassing over these small legal, mental, and social barriers associated with pot’s illegality, not anything inherent to marijuana, that could make it easier for marijuana users to overcome the higher barriers to hard drug use. Marijuana isn’t a gateway drug. Instead, it is marijuana prohibition that’s a potential gateway to further drug use.

How Will Castro be Remembered?

By Taylor Marvin

On Twitter, Sarah Alaoui wonders how the world will view the death of another aged revolutionary:

To be sure, there are enormous differenced between Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. Aside from a few mixed views of his legacy in the American press and elsewhere, Mandela was a globally respected democratic icon; Castro is an autocrat under whose repressive rule Cuba stagnated. However, Mandela’s death does suggest the question of how Fidel Castro’s will be received, especially given Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at the funeral (which was promptly decried by American conservatives).

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Photo by Alberto Korda, via Wikimedia.

Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Photo by Alberto Korda, via Wikimedia.

Castro’s legacy is both boosted and diminished by his longevity. After the dissolution of the USSR it became apparent that both it and Castro’s brands of communism were dead ends, and enormously damaging ones. During the Cold War Castro’s dictatorship compared favorably to many of Latin America’s rightest regimes, like the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, Stroessner regime in Paraguay, or Argentine National Reorganization Process. Similarly, Castro benefitted from the legitimizing enmity of the United States; while the region’s rightist regimes overstated the domestic left-wing opposition they defined themselves by combating, Castro faced a very powerful foe across the Florida Straits. Had Castro died in the 1980s, it is likely that these factors would have softened memories of his regime. This is no longer true.

However, Castro’s memory could also gain from his long life. More than twenty years after the end of the Cold War the popular association of Castro with the USSR and global communism has lessened, and his connection with a new wave of far more positively-received South American leftists like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa  has arguably improved his image. While Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro most closely associated themselves with the Castros’ Cuba, other countries with center-left governments pursued friendly relations with Cuba, with Dilma Rousseff’s Brazil recently accepting a mission of Cuban doctors. While Hugo Chávez’s talk of a resurgent and unified Latin American left was always overblown, Castro’s stature has benefitted from his position as the venerable and symbolic vanguard of the so-called movement — even if Castro’s figurehead position was as much due to his practical irrelevance than anything else.

Fidel Castro will be mourned in Latin America and elsewhere, both by those who admire his tenacious opposition to the United States and role as a symbol of left-wing resistance and by center-left governments seeking to co-opt the more popular aspects of his legacy. But Castro is unlikely to be widely rememberd as an icon. While the punishing US trade embargo allows for (somewhat justified) blame-shifting, under the Castro regime Cuba’s economy has stagnated while many of its neighbors’ have grown. Not only orphaned by the dissolution of the USSR, Cuba was also left behind by the wave of democratization that swept through the region in the 1980s. While Castro framed himself in opposition to the United States and its rightest clients throughout Latin America, former right-wing dictatorships like Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil  have democratized while Cuba has not. It is difficult to spin Castro as an icon of revolution and resistance when even the regional countries that associate themselves with his regime are now, unlike Cuba, democracies. Mandela’s life and death is associated with a beginning, while Castro’s will mark and end of an era.

Assad and the Illusion of Normalcy

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

At the Washington Post’s “Worldviews” blog, Loveday Morris flags a statement by Bashar al-Assad praising the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. “His history of struggle has become an inspiration to all the vulnerable peoples of the world,” Assad stated, “in the expectation that oppressors and aggressors will learn the lesson that in the end it is they who are the losers.”

Morris notes that the praise was unsurprisingly “greeted with derision from opposition activists and commentators,” angered by the hypocrisy of Assad’s apparent admiration for the icon of nonviolent resistance. The National Interest’s Ashley Frohwein questions whether “Assad is just saying this stuff for fun, like some kind of sick joke.”

But there’s nothing particularly surprising about Assad’s praise for Mandela. The Assad regime’s potential path to victory in the Syrian civil war requires it to constantly show confidence that it will win. In addition to vowing that it will never surrender, by dismissing the country’s massive armed rebellion as simply “terrorists” and preserving an illusion of normalcy Assad reassures his domestic supporters and fence-sitters that he is winning, discouraging defection. To Syrians inclined to label the opposition terrorists, there really isn’t even any glaring cognitive dissonance in Assad’s praise for the South African leader.

Of course, this signal is not particularly convincing because it is not costly — that is, Assad can feign normalcy whether he is winning or not — but this non-costly nature means there’s no reason not to engage in this particular strategy either.

This is not the first instance of the Assad government pursuing incongruously-banal behavior. In October 2012 it passed a law regulating genetically modified agricultural products; I noted the law’s possible signaling role at the time. The Syrian government-owned SANA news agency’s homepage is filled with, in addition to references to “Wahhabi terrorism”, commonplace human interest stories seemingly out of place in a country wracked by civil war.

A normal government would mark Nelson Mandela’s death by praising the famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Assad wishes his regime to be perceived by both domestic and international audiences as a normal government, so he praises Mandela as well.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Teodor Axentowicz, "Hutsul Funeral", 1882. Via Wikimedia.

Teodor Axentowicz, “Hutsul Funeral”, 1882. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Vice President Biden’s visit to Beijing and Chinese domestic politics. Relatedly, Robert Kelly looks at four hypotheses behind China’s suddenly-declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone.

Cultural taboos and changing sexual norms spur HIV surge in Iran.

The Netherlands moves to demanding that immigrants pass a demanding Dutch language test or leave the country. In other language news, the formal/informal pronoun distinctions in many Western languages appear to be falling out of favor.

An interesting look at Indian online dating sites.

From yesterday, more linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Idir & Noa – Ce Coeur Venu D’Ailleurs.