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Posts tagged ‘Aircraft Carrier’

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.  

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Regional Powers, Carriers, and “State Yachts”

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Flickr user Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Flickr user Jose Luis Cernadas Iglesias, via Wikimedia.

Does Angola want to purchase the former Spanish aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias? A recent piece by veteran defense reporter David Axe suggests that Angola may be interested in acquiring the STOVL carrier decommissioned from Spanish service early this year, but the rumors are probably untrue. Axe concludes that “no, this does not make a lot of sense,” and notes that the carrier would require nearly all of the Angolan Navy’s manpower to operate. The piece is sourced to the Portuguese-language defense blog Pássaro de Ferrowhich in turn cites a report in the Spanish newspaper El ConfidencialPássaro de Ferro claims that the carrier — which would otherwise be scrapped — may be sold to Angola as part of an acquisition that would also include four Spanish patrol vessels and would be refitted in Spain, though the piece admits that the news has not been confirmed by official sources. El Confidencial bases the story on the reported visit by two Angolan admirals to Spain to inspect the ship, but also acknowledges that Spanish Navy spokespeople have not commented on any potential sale.

However, Axe does point out that the overly-ambitious acquisition by Angola — a country of 20 million — would be “consistent with the country’s ongoing re-armament, which also includes a squadron of Russian-made heavy jet fighters formerly used by India.”

Robert Farley dismisses the story as “too crazy to be true,” but admits that “watching Angola build not only a navy but also a naval aviation branch from scratch would be remarkably interesting.” In the comments on Farley’s piece many note that the Angolan government is flush with oil revenue, which may lead it to judge itself capable of operating a carrier. In particular, commenter LFC of the IR blog Howl at Pluto writes that “this acquisition (if the story is accurate) is not as insane or unlikely as R. Farley suggests … Rulers and [governments] care about status, and weapons — even if operated on a somewhat token basis due to shortage of trained personnel etc. — continue to confer status.” While given the story’s uncertainty I agree that Angola is unlikely to actually acquire and operate the Príncipe de Asturias, LFC has a point. Aircraft carriers are potent status symbols, and for many regional powers — especially those not operating within a capable military alliance — the draw of acquiring a carrier is this symbolic value, rather than any real capability gain. If these countries are interested in defending their maritime interests, it makes far more sense to invest in submarines rather than second-hand Western carriers, which are optimized towards power projection. But submarines are — literally — far less visible than carriers. For governments seeking to solidify their status as widely-recognized emerging powers, this visibility is very important.

Several countries have acquired aircraft carriers despite lacking the financial and institutional resources to operate them effectively. As Axe cites in his piece, since the late 1990s Thailand has struggled to routinely operate its carrier flagship Chakri Naruebet, itself based on the Príncipe de Asturias. Similarly, in 2000 Brazil acquired the former French carrier Foch, renamed in Brazilian service the São Paulo. However, as another piece by Axe notes, Brazil has found the São Paulo challenging to operate. After two major fires, the ship’s “effectiveness is extremely limited,” according to Warships International Fleet Review — mirroring Brazil’s experience with its previous carrier Minas Gerais, which was unable to operate fixed-wing aircraft for a significant period of its later career.  (It is worth noting that with a GDP comparable to both the UK and France, Brazil likely could invest in gaining the institutional skills to effectively operate a more capable carrier, if it chose to do so. However, Brazil’s defense spending is lower than both the UK and France, both in total spending and as a percentage of GDP, and indeed lower than other BRIC countries.)

Like the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov, both Thailand and Brazil’s aircraft carriers are far more important as status symbols than as practical military assets. In Brazil and Thailand’s case, neither of these countries are interested in actually projecting power, and Thailand’s carrier is often disparaged as a “royal yacht” due to its frequent duties transporting the Thai royal family. While this purpose is less blatantly visible elsewhere, other regional powers’ carrier aspirations are similarly best thought of as “state yachts” — expensive, high profile status symbols whose prestige is far greater than their military capabilities. While Angola may or may not be interested in acquiring the Príncipe de Asturias, I think it is reasonable to assume that many navies in the developing world will seek to acquire and operate carriers in the years to come, if for prestige alone. Given the challenges of naval aviation, this is likely to be a bloody process.