The Brazilian Navy: Green Water or Blue?

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Although much attention has been directed toward the uncertain fate of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that were being built in Saint-Nazaire, France for export to Russia, there has been considerably less reporting on Brazil’s quiet naval expansion. The Brazilian Navy has frequently been dubbed a ‘green-water’ force to distinguish it from conventional ‘blue-water’ or ‘brown-water’ navies. Whereas a blue-water navy is concerned with operations on the high seas and engaging in far-ranging expeditions, brown-water navies are geared toward patrolling the shallow waters of the coastline or riverine warfare. Green-water navies, however, mix both capabilities, focusing mainly on securing a country’s littorals but also retaining the ability to venture out into the deep waters of the oceans.

For several decades, this green-water label has been accurate to the Brazilian Navy. Although possessing a vast array of inland patrol ships and river troop transports to exert sovereignty over Brazil’s many rivers and drainage basins, the Brazilian Navy also boasts the BNS Sao Paulo, a Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier purchased from France in 2000. But there has recently been a shift in Brazil’s maritime priorities, suggesting that it may soon be more accurate to regard the Brazilian Navy as a blue-water force with some lingering vestiges of brown-water capabilities. Begun under Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil from 2003 until 2011, and intensified under the Dilma Rouseff’s current government, Brazil has been on a shopping spree for military hardware. Although this has included procuring 36 Gripen NG multirole fighter aircraft from Saab for use by the Brazilian Air Force, much of the recent contracts have pertained to the purchase of vessels intended to modernize the Brazilian Navy.

Brazil’s five Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines, acquired from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, will be joined by four Scorpène-class diesel-electric attack submarines to be built domestically with completion of the first vessel expected in 2017. In March 2013, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated a domestic shipyard at which Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine – the fittingly named BNS Alvaro Alberto – will be built with French support. Delivery of the completed vessel is not expected until 2025 but the success of the project would bring Brazil into a very small club of countries with operational nuclear-powered submarines: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, and China.

The Barroso-class corvette commissioned in late 2008 also seems to have inspired a new series of ships for the Brazilian Navy. The domestic shipbuilder Arsenal de Marinha do Rio de Janeiro has been contracted to build four vessels based on the design of the Barroso-class but with “stealth capabilities” and which will possess both anti-ship and anti-air armaments. Delivery of the first of these new stealth corvettes is expected in 2019 and as such many specific details about the design are currently unknown. Furthermore, delivery of two new Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels is expected in 2015, while an additional two will be delivered in 2016-2017, bringing Brazil’s fleet of these patrol vessels to seven in total.

But why is there this rapid buildup in maritime forces for Brazil? To some degree, these new procurement projects are intended to offset the Brazilian Navy’s diminished capabilities following the retirement of 21 vessels between 1996 and 2005. This would not explain the focus on vessels with longer-range expeditionary capabilities, though. Some observers may attribute the acquisition of ships with capabilities clearly not intended for the patrol of inland waterways, such as the new “stealth-capable” Barroso-class corvettes, to the threat posed by Guinea-Bissau’s instability. That Lusophone West African country, which has been dubbed a “narco-state”, has been a major hub in the international drug trade; Colombian cocaine often makes its way to Guinea-Bissau from the Brazilian coast, only to then be exported onward to Europe. But President José Mário Vaz, who was elected by a decisive margin to lead Guinea-Bissau in May 2014, has quickly moved to crackdown on corruption in the Bissau-Guinean military and seems set to make counter-trafficking a priority during his term in office. Even if Brazilian policymakers believe it may be necessary to exert a stronger presence in the South Atlantic to discourage narcotics trafficking, a nuclear-powered attack submarine is not at all the right tool for the task.

Rather, it seems most likely that there are two principal factors motivating Brazil’s naval procurement projects. With regard to BNS Alvaro Alberto and the potential acquisition of a second aircraft carrier, Brazil craves the prestige of at least appearing to be the leading maritime power in the Southern Hemisphere. Participation in major international maritime exercises, such as the IBSAMAR series conducted jointly with Indian and South African forces, are intended to promote a view of Brazil as a power that ought to be respected and consulted, particularly as Brazilian policymakers continue to pursue a permanent seat for their country on the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, however, the shipbuilding projects on which Brazil has embarked are intended to build up domestic industry and contribute to economic growth.

Brazil is already attracting considerable interest as a shipbuilder. In September 2014, the Angolan Navy placed an order for seven Macaé-class offshore patrol vessels, with four to be built at Brazilian shipyards. Over the past several years, Brazil has exported various vessels and equipment for use by the Namibian Navy. Equatorial Guinea has expressed its intent to acquire a Barroso-class corvette from Brazil for counter-piracy purposes. The A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft intended for close air support and aerial reconnaissance, is produced by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer and has been exported for use in roughly a dozen national air forces. If Brazilian industry is successful in producing submarines and stealth corvettes, demand for Brazilian military hardware will only grow, generating impressive revenue and creating many jobs.

Of concern, however, are Brazil’s long-term intentions with regard to the construction of BNS Alvaro Alberto. There are few navies in the world with the infrastructure and know-how necessary to successfully operate one or more aircraft carriers; after all, the club of those countries with aircraft carriers in service is limited to just nine. But the export of nuclear-powered attack submarines would undermine the international community’s non-proliferation treaty and could potentially harm international peace and stability. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been rumoured to occasionally entertain plans to obtain a nuclear-powered submarine, while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has allegedly expressed a private interest in obtaining Soviet-era nuclear-powered submarines from the Russian Federation. This is not to say that Brazilian authorities would consider exporting such vessels to Iran, North Korea or other such regimes, but there is certainly a market for future submarines modelled on BNS Alvaro Alberto. It will be necessary to keep a very close eye on the Brazilian shipbuilding and nuclear industries in the 2030s, especially as domestic demand for this class of vessel is satisfied.

A plate on the Brasilian submarine rescue ship BNS K11 Felinto Perry.

A plate on the Brasilian submarine rescue ship BNS K11 Felinto Perry.

To obtain a deeper understanding of Brazil’s long-term strategic goals and to perhaps exert some degree of influence over Brazilian arms exports, it would be advisable for NATO to seek a partnership with the country. In August 2013, a partnership was established between NATO and Colombia, demonstrating that the Alliance certainly is interested in security affairs in the South Atlantic. Brazil could also contribute much know-how to NATO members, especially as the Alliance attempts to find its place post-Afghanistan. Clearly, there is much work to be done in the area of trust-building if such a partnership is to be found prior to the expected completion of BNS Alvaro Alberto: as Colombian officials visited with NATO counterparts to discuss the partnership, Brazilian policymakers were among those Latin American figures who condemned Colombia for the initiative.

Partnering with Brazil will be very challenging diplomatically, but it is an effort that must be made. This rising power will soon find itself with a blue-water navy and, as such, military vessels flying the Brazilian ensign will become an increasingly frequent sight in the South Atlantic.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in Brazil, English, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

4 Responses to The Brazilian Navy: Green Water or Blue?

  1. Joe says:

    First, I got to say, very nice article. I was confused, thought, at the very end when you wrote that seeking partership with Brazil would be challenging. Why is that? After all, Brazil has a possitive relation with every country. It has no unsolved geopolitical/historical conflicts and is – if its reputation preceeds it – an open and hospitable nation. Aside from the constant reluctance to position itself in favor of either the US or Russia, I fail to see any reason why diplomacy with the country would be difficult.

  2. Augusto says:

    In fact Brazil should strengthen and empower its military, much more by the need to maintain peace in the region, than projecting power in the world, already has too many countries that want to perform this function, let US, Russia and China do it.

    In Brazil it is to strengthen in order to ensure peace on the continent, in order to assert their peaceful position and prevent one or another South American country up to attack each other, know it sounds paradoxical but it is not.

    The Brazil never exportari weaponry to a country that threatens world peace or is a tyranny ruled by a despot.

    • What about those land mines and grenades in Gaddafi’s Libya and elsewhere in the hands of despotic governments in Africa and in the Middle East made in Brazil? Even the Cascavel and Urutu armoured cars.

      Brazil DOES export to countries that threatens world peace or are ‘borderline’ tyrannical if it is good for policy/economy. But that’s no news, not its something that would get people worried, after all, which weapon manufacturer restricts themselves in that way?

  3. Paul, very interesting piece. I’d like to highlight a few points that may help to further the debate and the ideas you present there.

    While you approach the strategic dimension of the ‘growth’ of the Brazilian Navy correctly, and you also address the industrial leveraging issue too, you leave out the history of civil-military relations in Brazil and the competition for budget, which is important here.

    Since the 1964 Military Coup and the restoration of democratic rule in the country, the civil-military relationship is yet to be seen as a positive factor in the countries Defence establishment, more broadly. Take for example the fact that Brazil MoD only exists since 1999, and before that branch commanders would report directly to the President, sometimes retaining a disproportionate amount of leverage. As this leverage fades away, some old-schoolers like to make their best to keep things the old way, or at least to retain as much ‘power’ as possible.

    The branches of the military always have been in competition for prestige and, just as important, budget. This competition materialises in the pursuit of ‘pet projects’ that are almost self-justified, in that sense. The nuclear powered submarine is one of those pet projects. The three branches of the military competed (stress on competition) for obtaining an edge on nuclear technology, pursuing different courses of action, and the Navy emerged ‘victorious’ (refer to Matias Spektor work on the history of Brazil’s Nuclear Programme). It is something that is close to the heart of the Admirals, for a handful of reasons. Not being useful – strategically wise, for the South Atlantic or the ‘Blue Amazon’ – don’t mean they won’t pursue it or that they don’t see it as useful.

    Specifically within the Navy, building a Nuclear Submarine is seen as the final seal of excellency in in-force technology development. Arsenal de Marinha and also EMGEPRON (which is technically civilian) are colonised by reserve officers working there, and their relationship is very, very close, understandably. They represent the ‘military industrial compound’ branch of the Navy, and the topic of how the Defence policy in Brazil embraces the industrial dimension of Defence is one lurking around. Incidentally, and connected to Brazil’s civil-military issues, each branch approaches it in its own terms, rather than policy streaming from the Ministry itself, which more passively tries to coordinate things. Once again, the recognition, empowerment and advertising of national shipbuilding savoir-faire is part of the reason why Brazil has been assertively seeking natively developing and building ships and attaining contracts that rely heavily on technology-transfer.

    Last but not least, ‘power’ can be for swaggering rather than for actual strategic/tactical purposes. That works both in-branch, between-branch and to the outside audience.

    In-branch, means that the Navy establishment is very satisfied by becoming a blue-water Navy, with Admirals that have the opportunity to command Carrier Strike Groups, something that only big navies have. The myth of a ‘strong / big Navy’ permeates the officership, with few exemptions. All in all, Navy officers are embedded in a culture in which they’re made to aspire to command an Aircraft Carrier and conduct missions of power projection thousands of miles away from home, but very few see their successful career endpoint as commanders of a river patrol force, or even in coastal patrol ships. Yes, the investment in Macaé class ships speaks against this, however, coastal protection can’t be neglected and it still costs a fraction of the nuclear programme.

    Between-branch, having (and mainly justifying) a big Navy means more resources being channelled from Defence budget to the Navy. Which in turn means more ships, more structures and, consequently, need for more personnel, more command posts and more responsibility that require better salaries. If the force can assert its usefulness and efficiency to the MoD, it is more likely that it will receive more resources than its counterparts, or at least that is the rationale behind that discourse.

    To the outside audience, is where the Foreign Policy and Defence Policy purchase is, and incidentally is where the Navy focuses its efforts. Big countries have big navies. It has been so historically, and it is a necessity of Brazil’s political aspirations as a country to follow suit. Even if we are not sure how these vectors of power will be useful, it is likely that – one way or the other – they will. Pitching this aspect allows the Navy to get buy-in from the MoD and the MoFA. As this is also good for increasing the Defence relevancy (and thus Defence budget), the between-branch competition is made carefully as not to hinder the general benefits, so we shouldn’t expect the Army or the Air Force to openly criticise the Nuclear Submarine project either.

    Finally, about the diplomatic questions the Brazilian Navy may raise, I wouldn’t worry much on the nuclear proliferation side. The Nuclear Programme (both civilian and military) was always a significant part of the country’s foreign policy. It continues to be relevant, and as such is is delicately managed: Brazil’s has agreed not to develop nuclear weapons but wishes to retain nuclear technology for other purposes, something that can prove complicated/too restrictive within the non-proliferation regime, requiring delicate diplomatic management. Exporting nuclear technology (especially to ‘rogue’ players) would certainly backfire and cause more trouble than good. I would argue that Brazil seeks to affirm itself and and be part of the club, rather than destabilise the nuclear system.

    Which brings me to my second point about diplomacy: apparently, Brazil wants to be part of the club of great powers. It doesn’t want only to be admitted to the club, it wants the other members to recognise it – by deeds, not words – as a peer. So, Brazil doesn’t want to be part of an agreement with NATO that puts Brazil in the ‘follower’ stance, but rather on the ‘partner’ position. If NATO wants to approach Brazil for initiatives towards expanding cooperation regarding the South Atlantic, it has to do so by courting Brazil’s legitimacy as a big regional player and full-fledged partner in the area. If NATO envisages a ‘partnership’ in the moulds of the one the Alliance has with Ukraine or Georgia, it surely won’t fly in Brasilia. And also not a partnership such as the one it has with Russia either.

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