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Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?

By Taylor Marvin

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

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.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

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.

*Naval ranks translated into US equivalents with the help of Wikipedia.

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.

What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

Nuclear Weapons and the Brazilian Case

By Taylor Marvin

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

Argentine Mirage III aircraft, via Francisco Infante and Wikimedia.

First off, my apologies for the long absence — I recently moved and started a new job, neither of which are conductive to regular writing.

Today I have a piece at Political Violence at a Glance (which I once edited, but have now moved on from, due to aforementioned the new job) looking at why Latin America remains the world’s largest region where nuclear weapons have never been produced.

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The short answer is that Latin American countries were not in a position to develop nuclear weapons during the early years of the Cold War and both Argentina and Brazil abandoned their efforts to build nuclear arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s (see Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities for a detailed account of these events), all while the security and prestige gains from these weapons have steadily eroded while their diplomatic costs have increased. Today there is little reason why Brazil or Argentina would invite international condemnation by building nuclear weapons, when both countries face no external threats and see a path to global prestige through international organizations and economic growth, rather than unpopular nuclear arms.

However, as I allude this argument is a bit of a circular one in the Latin American context. It is arguable that states aspiring to global leadership roles have moved away from building nuclear weapons as a means of realizing their ambitions. But this observation rests heavily on the Brazilian example, because Brazil is one of the world’s most prominent non-nuclear states. Of the emerging economies BRICS bloc only Brazil has never possessed nuclear weapons (South Africa voluntarily gave up its own small nuclear arsenal), though of course Brazil’s historical experience is hugely different than India and South Africa, and especially from the USSR/Russia and China. Brazil’s non-nuclear status is not alone among the G4 nations hoping to join a reformed UN Security Council, but Germany and Japan both have unique historical reasons to decline fielding nuclear arms, even if both are capable of building them. So if Brazil does elect to build nuclear weapons the argument that modern aspirants to international status don’t need nuclear arms would collapse, both in theory and probably in practice.

All this isn’t to say that the alarmism of Hans Rühle’s 2010 article is correct. It is still difficult to say what Brazil would actually gain from developing nuclear weapons, and the country’s long coastline, offshore resources, and military modernization ambitions make developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine a legitimate goal (in the sense that consistently operating one or more nuclear attack submarine would grant the Brazilian navy significant new, practical capabilities). Of course it is unclear who an advanced submarine would actually be defending Brazil from, but that isn’t the point of prestige military programs. Unlike nuclear weapons few would condemn an eventual Brazilian nuclear submarine as anything beyond a waste of money, and this comparatively unoffensive weapons program still buys admission to an elite technological club. But even if Brazil joining the world’s nuclear weapons states is unlikely, it is important to remember that the negative consequences of it choosing to do so would be very serious.

Will Governments Ever Say No Thanks to Global Events?

By Taylor Marvin

The June opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup is fast approaching, but not all Brazilians are happy that their country will be hosting soccer’s premier event. Despite Brazilians’ futebol-mad reputation, a February poll found that only 52 percent of Brazilians supported hosting the Cup. By April that number had fallen below fifty percent. In addition to construction fatalities and fears of heavy-handed policing during the Cup, many residents of the South American giant are concerned about the event’s cost, and believe that funds devoted to what the government of President Dilma Rousseff has dubbed the Copa das Copas or ‘Cup of Cups’ could be better spent elsewhere. Rousseff, who is heavily favored to win what is expected to be a rough second term in October, certainly hopes that the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics will be a high point of her term in presidency. But even if the World Cup and Olympics unfold successfully and protests are kept to a minimum, Brazil’s efforts to host these events have not gone as smoothly as their backers would have hoped.

The problems associated with hosting large international sporting events — rushed construction, ballooning costs, and public opposition — are not limited to Brazil. The days before the opening of this winter’s Sochi Olympics were marked by widespread media reportsor, less charitably, mocking — of substandard construction and a frantic last-second push to finish building accommodations. Less immediately, the Sochi Olympics, which were the most expensive in history, drew attention to Russia’s widespread corruption problem, which challenges the Games’ overt goal of demonstrating Russia’s modernity and encouraging foreign business. The Sochi Games also leave behind a fantastically expensive resort city no one seems to know what to do with. While it is debatable whether Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine is related to the Sochi Games, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the threat of retaliatory sanctions certainly doesn’t help.

Elsewhere, Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup requires truly staggering construction in the oil-rich Gulf State. Conditions for the migrant workers tasked with building these facilities and infrastructure projects are so bad and so many workers are expected to die that it is possible to seriously raise the question of whether FIFA can be considered a mass killer. South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup was also troubled by serious worries about the country’s ability to host such a massive event.

If hosting massive international sports grows more expensive and difficult, will governments eventually decide that it simply isn’t worth it? After all, noble-minded talk of the thrill of sport and international cooperation aside governments’ desire to host these high-profile events is really driven by the international prestige and attention they bring. If the risks of spiraling costs and mass protests — particularly in the age of social media — put this prestige in doubt, governments may be more hesitate to spend such vast sums. The almost gleeful mocking of unfinished Sochi construction must have raised many eyebrows in countries scheduled to host their own international sporting events. Will governments ever look at the precedent of negative reporting on Sochi’s unfinished hotel rooms and Qatar’s thousands of dead laborers and simply say ‘no thanks’?

This question is particularly relevant for democratic governments. Autocracies, like Russia and Qatar, can simply decide that event-driven gains to their prestige are worth the possible costs to their image or domestic unrest over construction costs. Autocratic countries, less constrained by human rights concerns, also have greater ability to preserve their own image by keeping demonstrators away from the international media. In democracies, however, these risks are more difficult to shrug off, particularly on the domestic level — while Brazil’s Rousseff remains heavily favored to win reelection, protests driven by anger over the Cup did real damage to her polling, damage she is surly aware of.

Of course, despite their costs the recent Olympics Games in Beijing, Vancouver, London, and Sochi, and the South African FIFA World Cup, were all ultimately successful. These events experienced cost overruns, delays, and ultimately leave behind brand-new facilities and infrastructure that are difficult to find a use for once the games are over, but all of these events suffered no major disasters and brought positive global attention to their host countries. This positive coverage is why it is difficult to imagine a large-scale move away from hosting massive international sports events by democratic governments. Despite negative attention like the #sochiproblems Twitter hashtag that trended in the opening days of the Winter Olympics, international media coverage of international athletic events follows a script. In the lead up to the games, media focuses on construction and the dramatic possibility of delays. Because this news is not yet a major story, this coverage tends to be delegated to the international news that most consumers do not closely follow. As the event approaches and journalists arrive to the host city, they fill their time by reporting on facilities problems, adding audience-drawing drama to an otherwise uneventful waiting period. But once the matches actually start, sports reporting dominates. Barring a serious disaster, this feel-good coverage of athletics and the glamor of opening and closing ceremonies is what viewers around the world will remember after the events are over. The negative legacy of these events, like corruption and useless facilities, are much less reported on once international journalists have left.

As long as something does not go seriously wrong, both international audiences and Brazilians will likely remember the 2014 World Cup for the soccer, not delays and cost overruns. From the perspective of international prestige, that’s a win. Similarly, the brutal truth is that it is difficult to imagine a world where anonymous worker deaths leave a greater impact on audiences than the highlights of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. As long as media coverage of these events follows the same script, governments will likely keep chasing the perfect Copa das Copas.

How Real Is BRICS Solidarity on Crimea?

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via .

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via Agência Brasil.

Last week a resolution calling on the international community not to recognize the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea easily passed through the United Nations General Assembly. The non-binding agreement, which urged restraint and a peaceful resolution to the conflict, received a hundred votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions, in addition to a number of UN member states not present for the vote.

While the resolution was adopted, commentators immediately drew attention to the comparatively low number of “Yes” votes. It is difficult to think of a more blatant violation of international norms than Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and later annexation of the peninsula after a singularly-unconvincing referendum. While the only states to vote against the resolution were Russia and ten of its close allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, and Armenia, the high number of abstentions is a puzzle. Why would so many states remain on the sidelines, so to speak, of such a clear-cut issue?

More importantly, why did Russia’s BRICS peers — a loose bloc of large developing economies composed of, besides Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — all abstain from the vote? The BRICS bloc, a grouping that was first proposed (minus South Africa) by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, has always been an association stronger on paper than the real world, but this show of solidarity is striking. While China is a Russian ally that also hopes to regain territory it once lost — in China’s case, Taiwan — its government has also long presented itself as committed to ideals of territorial sovereignty and states’ freedom from foreign interference, a stance its abstention undercuts. Brazil, India, and South Africa are all democracies that presumably should strongly oppose Vladimir Putin’s ‘might makes right’ annexation of Crimea.

Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s stance is especially puzzling because their abstention on the UN resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity is, for all practical purposes, a vote in favor of Russia. With its invasion and annexation already successful, Russia now seeks to defend the status quo, a reality that a refusal to condemn Russia supports. One potential answer to this puzzle is that, as Daniel Larison has written, these countries simply don’t see the Crimea issue as vital enough to their interests to take on the diplomatic risks of a firm position. Another is that Russia put great effort into urging its fellow BRICS countries to support it, though this alone is an unsatisfying explanation — it’s difficult to see Russia as having the leverage to coerce a bloc of countries that together are far more populous and economically powerful than itself.

Via Milena Rodban, in The Diplomat Zachary Keck suggests another explanation. Noting a statement by BRICS foreign ministers denouncing the push to impose costs on Russia’s Crimea annexation, Keck sees the the BRICS countries’ abstentions at the UN General Assembly as a deliberate repudiation of Western norms and the pressures by which the United States and its allies seek to enforce them. This repudiation is part of a strategy designed to united the otherwise disparate BRICS countries. “BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position,” Keck writes. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.”

This is a provocative explanation for BRICS solidarity at the UN. However, there is also a simpler one. As Keck lists, the BRICS bloc has incentives to both preserve its own unity and demonstrate its relevance, but the UN vote is less a demonstration of the strength of this “post-Western” solidarity than that the costs of doing so are very small.

Yes, an abstention is an implicit voice of support for Russia, but it is far less forceful than the “No” votes on the Assembly resolution. The most obvious takeaway from the vote isn’t that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa abstained from the vote along with with 54 other countries, but that Russia was only able to draw “No” votes from a small number of its obvious allies and, more embarrassingly, clients. Moreover, while 100 “Yes” votes is hardly a ringing endorsement of the norms against territorial annexation, the vote itself was never in doubt. The non-Russian members of the BRICS bloc could afford a mild show of solidarity with Russia because there was no chance that their measured statements in opposing sanctions and abstentions would actually lead to the rejection of the Assembly resolution.

Similarly, the governments of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are unlikely to pay any costs for their positions at home. In Brazil, in particular, a recent Christian Science Monitor piece noted that while Russia’s annexation is unpopular in the Brazilian press, the conflict is overshadowed by domestic issues, like the fast-approaching World Cup, and in the international realm events in Brazil’s immediate neighborhood. Recent pieces published in Brazilian media have, for example, argued that a referendum cannot legitimize annexation, warned of future conflict, and echoed the argument that Russia will lose influence in the rest of Ukraine. But it seems unlikely that the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is widely favored to win reelection this fall, will suffer any serious domestic pushback from abstention, along with those of its democratic BRICS counterparts in India and South Africa.

Another explanation for the vote’s cost — and thus its importance as a post-Western moment — born by the BRICS is that several of the bloc’s members face secessionist movements of their own. China has real fears of Tibetan and Uyghur separatism — in addition to the possibility of a formal Taiwanese independence declaration — and India a number of separatist movements, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir. Supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be costly to states facing secessionist movements, the theory goes, because it will encourage separatists elsewhere. However, this seems not to be the case in practice. Political scientist Steve Saideman has extensively argued countries support or oppose secessionist movements “based on the context of each one, rather than to any over-arching principle.” Canada recognized Kosovo because such a move fit into the country’s wider foreign policy goals, despite its own secessionist movement in Quebec; a notably counterargument to this theory is Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo. All this suggests that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s support for Russia will not bring future costs by encouraging domestic secessionists. This is particularly true for Brazil, where to the best of my knowledge a breakaway southern state has no chance of success or even much real support. (One of the movement’s website appears to now be a Japanese porn site.)

So it’s possible that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all abstained from the Assembly resolution on Crimea to stand against — so the narrative goes — a hypocritical West. But even if this is true, this is less a bold stance than an empty one. Bland statements and abstentions do aid Russia, but do little in any practical way. It is worth remembering that a single “No” vote from a large, democratic country like Brazil, India, or South Africa would have been an immensely powerful public relations tool for Putin. The fact that Russia couldn’t manage to get even one from its BRICS counterparts substantially weakens the argument that the vote represents some new post-Western moment. The BRICS group may, in Oliver Stuenkel’s words, be driven by a narrative “that emerging powers are successful and that the rise of the Global South is set to fundamentally change the distribution of power in global affairs.” But that does not mean that the Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are willing to bear serious costs in support of Russian military adventurism.

Instead, it is more likely that BRICS leaders are only willing to offer token — and more importantly, largely costless — support for an increasingly unpopular and isolated Russia.

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.  

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.

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.

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.