Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?
By Taylor Marvin
In August, the Brazilian site DefesaNet reported that despite recent budget cuts developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine remains a priority for Brazil’s navy. Amid a stumbling economy the Brazilian Navy’s budget was reduced from R$ 5.2 to R$3.9 billion, or roughly $1.3 and $1 billion in US dollars. “The first step is establishing clear priorities, which are the nuclear and submarine construction program, besides maintaining our operational squadron,” Navy commander Admiral* Eduardo Bacellar said during a senate commission event. “For the Navy commander, any threat to Brazilian sovereignty would necessarily come from the sea,” DefesaNet’s report continues, and the Navy’s stated goal of “keeping the South Atlantic free of conflicts” includes defending Brazil’s offshore petroleum resources. [My translation.]
Under current plans Brazil will build four diesel-electric attack submarines and a single much larger nuclear-powered submarine (Submarino com Propulsão Nuclear, or SN-BR); the first conventionally-powered submarine is expected to be completed in 2017. (It is important to distinguish between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which are often powered by nuclear reactors. Brazil does not possess nuclear weapons.) These submarines are being developed with French assistance and are based on the French Scorpène class, though France is not sharing nuclear technology (see a comparison of the conventional and nuclear-powered submarines at Think Defense). As Defense Industry Daily reports, French technical cooperation will allow Brazilian firms to grow their own advanced manufacturing capabilities. This industrial development is a key goal of the program, as is job creation. While Brazil could have easily purchased the conventional submarines from established suppliers abroad, building the submarines in Brazil is an important aim of the project. The nuclear submarine is slated to begin construction in 2016 and to enter operational service 2025. (This date is now unlikely; see update below.)Though details are uncertain, later on Brazil hopes to build additional nuclear-powered subs.
By far the most complex aspect of the submarine project – which abbreviated as PROSUB – is Brazil’s effort to develop submarine nuclear propulsion. Many navies operate conventional attack submarines, and while building these boats is difficult enough developing the compact nuclear reactor required to power a nuclear submarine is a formidable undertaking. Brazil has operated a civil nuclear power station since the 1980s and covertly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country is not a leading expert in the nuclear power sector. Combined with a relative paucity of funding, this technical inexperience has contributed to the nuclear propulsion effort’s long history: in tandem with its stumbling efforts to develop nuclear weapons Brazil first embarked on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor in 1979, while funding the nuclear submarine’s construction was first announced by President Luíz Inácio da Silva in 2007.
Developing a nuclear-powered submarine is an enormously difficult and uncertain enterprise with no assurances of success: only China, France, India, Russia, the UK, and US have done so. Given these barriers, why is the Brazilian Navy so focused on building one? As a 2009 Proceedings article by Paul D. Taylor explains (via Defense Industry Daily) “the answer is apparently more related to political and economic factors associated with grand strategy than to requirements of naval strategy.” Brazil is developing a nuclear submarine because it aspires to join – and importantly be recognized among – the ranks of the global leaders that can field a particularly formidable, expensive, and prestigious class of military technology.
Brazil aspires to be a world power, an aspiration justified in Brazilian eyes by the country’s large population, continental size, maturing democracy, cultural soft power, and regional leadership. Naval power, specifically extending Brazilian influence across the South Atlantic, is a key path towards realizing Brazil’s global aspirations. As Nathan Thompson and Robert Muggah recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil has coupled soft-power initiatives with a dramatic boost in military cooperation with Africa, conducting joint naval exercises, providing military training and arms transfers, and establishing outposts in ports across the continent’s western coast.” Oliver Stuenkel also notes the importance of the South Atlantic in Brazilian strategic thought, which is expressed in the phrase Amazônia Azul or “Blue Amazon.” “Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the [African] continent,” Stuenkel wrote in 2013, Brazil “is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic … and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States … to create one single Atlantic Space.”
The Brazilian Navy sees the SN-BR as a vital component of the country’s overall maritime strategy. An attack submarine’s core mission is destroying enemy warships and shipping and hunting other submarines (and, to a lesser extent, launching land attack cruise missiles). While the advent of advanced air-independent propulsion schemes have eroded nuclear-powered submarines’ advantages over their conventional peers, nuclear-powered attack submarines are able sustain much higher speeds when submerged and patrol longer distances, a key advantage given Brazil’s 7,000 kilometers of coastline.
But as Taylor notes, none of the then-stated strategic rationales for a Brazilian nuclear submarine – protecting offshore oil platforms and patrolling Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone – seem justifiable: the SN-BR’s costs make little sense given that Brazil has no external enemies. Clearly, other aims are at work.
Brazilian officials justify PROSUB by citing the need to deter potential aggressors and protect Brazil’s offshore resources. This maritime patrimony or “Blue Amazon” is even referenced in the name of the government-owned consortium responsible for the nuclear sub project, Amazul. As Taylor notes, the “Blue Amazon” metaphor is a deliberate public relations strategy. Throughout their history Brazilians have often described the vast Amazon as the resource that makes their country exceptional, but also one that is threatened by outside forces. “The Brazilian elite, especially the military, had long worried that their country might lose the Amazon valley for want of settling it,” Thomas E. Skidmore writes in The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, discussing the military dictatorship’s ill-advised attempt to open the Amazon basin to agriculture. “Generations of Brazilian army cadets had been taught the Amazon’s geopolitical significance; now as officers they feared possible Peruvian or Venezuelan incursions into Brazil’s vasty but thinly held territory upriver. This worry deepened as the Amazon’s extraordinary mineral wealth – especially iron ore – became known.” Importantly, exactly who threatens the Amazon is unimportant: earlier generations feared America’s tentacles reaching south into the Amazon, rumors that improbably persist into the 21st century. By invoking these fears the Brazilian Navy’s use of the phrase Amazônia Azul suggests – and, importantly, advocates – both the importance of Brazil’s maritime resources and their vulnerability. While it is difficult to say who threatens Brazil’s offshore resources, the Amazônia Azul metaphor creates a narrative where someone does.
In this narrative submarines are required to defend Brazil’s maritime patrimony, and the immediate impracticality of a modern submarine force is irrelevant. As Stuenkel dryly notes “specialists are unsure how nuclear submarines are useful” in the context of defending offshore resources, but despite the rhetoric that justifies their development are in service of a larger goal. “Rather, the development of nuclear submarines can be seen as a long-term project to eventually gain the capacity to control the South Atlantic strategically.” Extended across the Atlantic, Amazônia Azul’s defensive rhetoric becomes, implicitly, an offensive sea denial strategy, at least in theory.
Beyond their role in war and deterrence value, the existence – or more importantly, development – of submarines plays a pivotal role in Brazil’s ambitions. Advanced submarines, and particularly nuclear-powered submarines, are an important source of national prestige. Brazil’s aspirations to global influence and long-standing desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it keenly aware how possessing prestige symbols can further these goals. Nuclear submarines are restricted to a select club which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a fact President Rousseff explicitly referenced in her December 2014 inauguration of the facility where the submarine’s reactor will be installed. (Rousseff skirted around India’s ongoing development of a nuclear submarine, which is both convenient – India also seeks a permanent UNSC seat – and inconvenient for this narrative.) Additionally, and again as Taylor writes, fielding a nuclear submarine “would add an argument to the case that [Brazil] so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice” for an expanded Security Council, though as Stuenkel notes “Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership.” Even so, this dynamic is not that different from aircraft carriers – and today Brazil is the only Latin American country to operate (in theory, given its uncertain reliability) an aircraft carrier of its own, though Brazil’s naval fighter aircraft are ancient.
Brazil has also pursued nuclear technology for decades, demonstrating a deep desire to be seen belonging to the elite club of states proficient in nuclear energy. Brazil sought to develop nuclear weapons before voluntarily giving up its nuclear ambitions through a series of diplomatic accords. The country generates a small portion of its electricity from nuclear power, though not without setbacks; the country’s unreliable civil nuclear power plant was nicknamed the “firefly” in the 1980s for its flickering output. With developing nuclear weapons now both undesirable and politically unavailable, in national prestige terms militarized nuclear energy – maritime reactors – is the next best thing. “The domination of nuclear technology is seen as a national symbol of pride and proof that Brazil is no longer a developing country,” Stuenkel writes of a nuclear submarine. While a nuclear reactor could power a future aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship (or any other large surface ship, if cost-effectiveness isn’t considered) in modern US service only submarines and supercarriers steam under nuclear power. (Brazil’s São Paulo carrier, formerly the French Foch, is conventionally powered.) If Brazil prizes nuclear status and an attack submarine is the most plausible rational for achieving this distinction then the SN-BR program is the justification for developing and fielding militarized nuclear energy, not the other way around.
Beyond its immediate military justifications and wider role as a status symbol, questions about the SN-BR’s value remain. Every real spent on the nuclear submarine is funding that cannot be spent elsewhere. Is the expensive effort to develop the SN-BR the best means of expanding Brazil power across the South Atlantic?
After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine prompted France to cancel the planned sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, Robert Farley speculated that these ships – which are capable of launching dozens of helicopters and landing marines onshore – could be purchased by Brazil to supplement the country’s aging aircraft carrier. While this sale was never likely and the Mistrals were recently bought by a Gulf-backed Egypt, the Mistrals arguably fit far better into Brazil’s South Atlantic-spanning strategy aspirations than an expensive homegrown nuclear-powered submarine.
While Brazil’s global aspirations have stalled under the inward-facing and distracted Rousseff administration, the South Atlantic and Africa is likely to remain an important focus of Brazil’s long-term strategic vision. Amphibious assault ships are relevant to this vision – which, importantly, given Brazil’s lack of peer rivals is more a peaceful one of security assistance rather than outright sea denial – in a way submarines are not. Versatile flattops can project airpower, contribute to disaster relief and amphibious operations, and provide a highly visible symbol of Brazilian power. While not directly referencing Brazil’s South Atlantic priorities, Farley emphasizes this point: unlike the aging São Paulo carrier, amphibious assault ships “can increase Brazil’s regional influence not merely by existing, but also by doing things on a daily basis.” They have the same advantage over submarines.
In some ways the submarine project, and especially Brazil’s efforts to develop nuclear propulsion, is a holdover from a more hopeful era: it is difficult to imagine the beleaguered Rousseff administration embarking the program today. Similarly, the decision to tie Brazil’s prestige and global ambitions to advanced submarines rather acquiring amphibious assault ships or other markers of national power rests on decisions taken decades ago, when the Brazil first embarked on its nuclear weapons and energy programs. And of course, the chance to purchase the Mistrals was an unpredictable one-off opportunity that would have been difficult to manage even if Brazil was interested.
Actually building the nuclear-powered submarine will be difficult and is likely to face technical problems and funding shortages, particularly given Brazil’s current economic slump. But despite these strategic questions and practical challenges Brazil has committed itself to realizing PROSUB’s ambitions. Whether the program will bring Brazil the influence and prestige it seeks remains to be seen.
Update (11/30/2015): As O Globo reported on November 11th (via Poder Naval), budget cuts have now delayed the expected nuclear submarine schedule by three to four years. I have not updated the 2025 service entry date included in the original text, both as a reference and since in Brazil’s economic climate this new target remains uncertain.