Why Does Brazil Need Nuclear Submarines?

By Paul D. Taylor

Speaking later to the chiefs of the armed forces, President Lula commented that when he took office in 2003, the country lacked credit, unemployment was high, and Brazil seemed to have lost hope of becoming a great nation. Since then the gross domestic product had grown, the budget had expanded, unemployment had decreased, and three decades of military downsizing could now be reversed.

In fact, Brazil's GDP grew at the rate of 5.7 percent in 2007, driven significantly by booming exports of minerals and foodstuffs to China and India. Those exports figured among the more than 95 percent of Brazilian foreign trade transported by maritime means. The nation has also recently enjoyed the euphoria of massive new offshore discoveries of oil and gas that could make it a major exporter of petroleum within a decade.

Lula asserted that Brazil's economy had developed enough for him to present a plan of recuperation for the armed forces and for the defense industry. He said he did not know any country desiring respect that did not have well-equipped and ready armed forces. Additionally, Brazil has a long-established, responsible, and peaceful nuclear power program that includes several plants. 

The Submarine Project

The Brazilian program features three distinct phases. The first concentrates on the nuclear-fuel cycle. Currently, yellow cake produced in the first step of uranium enrichment is shipped from Brazil to Canada for processing into hexafluoride gas, which then goes to Europe for enrichment by a British-Dutch-German consortium. Admiral Julio Soares de Moura Neto, chief of the Brazilian Navy, estimates that his country will be able to complete the full uranium enrichment process by 2010.

Construction of a naval reactor, the second phase of the program, is under way. The government has committed some U.S. $525 million to be spent in installments over eight years.

The final phase is construction of the submarine itself. Despite Brazil's established record in shipbuilding, leaders recognize that the sophisticated technology required for a nuclear-sub hull will have to be acquired abroad. In pursuit of partners, the ministers of defense and of strategic affairs, Nelson Jobim and Roberto Mangabeira Unger, along with Admiral Moura Neto, have traveled to France and Russia to discuss cooperation on manufacturing in Brazil.

Reportedly, the Russians expressed a willingness to sell a submarine, but they disappointed Brazilian officials by refusing to share the technology to build one. Visiting Brazil in December 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed a "strategic partnership" agreement providing for transfer of technology to Brazil for construction there of four diesel-powered Scorpine attack submarines as well as joint development of the hull for a nuclear submarine. An announcement by the Brazilian Ministry of Defense emphasized that Brazil would develop all of the nuclear part. The naval component of the bilateral agreement was reported to be worth U.S. $5.7 billion.

Strategically Speaking

President Lula's comments about past difficulties in funding military modernization during economic lows reveal only one aspect of the history. Civilian political leaders, especially those of the center left including the President's Workers' Party, were not anxious to provide resources to the same military establishment that suspended democratic practices and ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. Many politicians still smart from that period's physical and political abuses.

Defense Minister Jobim explained to the Chamber of Deputies that nuclear submarines would be used to protect offshore oil platforms. Carrying the point further, Vice President Jos e Alencar said that Brazil needed to "produce and employ nuclear submarines in its naval fleet to protect riches located on the continental shelf and discourage any aggressive foreign actions in Brazilian waters." 3 He explained that the country was unprepared to patrol adequately an area of more than 4 million square kilometers, and that nuclear submarines would give the country a deterrent capability that it lacked. Alencar specifically rejected rumors in the press that the 2008 U.S. reactivation of it 4th Fleet, which had aroused intense concern in some circles, had figured in the Brazilian decision to acquire nuclear submarines. While Brazil's overall relations with the United States have been cordial, and the two countries enjoy a strong commercial relationship, fear of domination from the North is an enduring feature of the Brazilian political psyche.

The main characteristics that distinguish nuclear submarines from other naval platforms are their ability to stay submerged for long periods and to operate over great distances without refueling. So natural questions are whether these attributes are relevant to the proposed missions, and whether investment in these submarines is a cost-effective approach. Four missions seem possible: the two stated purposes plus two potential uses.

Protection of Offshore Oil Platforms: Submarines are not well suited to this task. Other options include surface ships and maritime patrol aircraft. Lula recently underscored the importance of constructing patrol boats for this purpose. A fleet of small, fast surface ships could be built for the price of a single nuclear submarine and would also present a visible deterrent to anyone attempting to jeopardize Brazilian control of the platforms. A submarine could be effective in collecting evidence of criminal activity against underwater installations, including oil pipelines, should that be a problem.

Patrolling the Exclusive Economic Zone: A nuclear submarine, with its stealth and speed, could exemplify the defense minister's concept of mobility by permitting an actual presence instead of merely "being able to be present." 4 However, these attributes are not unique to nuclear submarines, which carry high costs for acquisition, training, and maintenance. Recognizing that the sub would be but one element of coastal patrols, Admiral Moura Neto described it as useful because it can "remain permanently under the water; only the human factor restricts it in terms of crew fatigue, etc." 5

This mission has received high priority, as described by Rear Admiral Antonio Ruy de Almeida Silva. When he was director of the Brazilian Naval War College, he wrote:

The Navy has actually strongly defended a larger participation in the effort to protect the maritime area under national jurisdiction, suggestively named Amazania Azul (the Blue Amazon). Keeping control of this maritime area is a big challenge that grows as sea-related activities, connected to the exploitation of living and non-living resources, increase as happens with oil exploration in the Brazilian continental shelf. 6

The term Blue Amazon picks up on the long-standing Brazilian preoccupation that a paucity of state presence in the vast Amazon Basin (the Green Amazon) represents a vulnerability to foreign exploitation. The navy has sought to make the parallel point that maritime domain awareness must be increased, along with other measures to defend Brazil's maritime space. The National Defense Strategy lays great stress on stronger defense of the Amazon region, both inland and offshore.

Deterrence of a State Threat: The stealth of nuclear submarines suits them ideally to the deterrence mission, a fundamental assumption of the National Defense Strategy according to Defense Minister Jobim. But there has been little, if any, public discussion of a threat that needs to be deterred in the way that might involve a nuclear submarine. Aside from its combat division fighting with the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy in 1944, the country has not engaged militarily with a foreign country in well over a century. Submarines are ideal platforms for defending against other subs, and a case could be made that Venezuela's recent agreement with Russia to acquire modern diesel submarines presents a hypothetical threat to Brazil during the next 40 to 50 years, the projected lifespan of new nuclear submarines. 7 Latin American leaders have been reticent to discuss any anxieties about their neighbors. Not surprisingly, Jobim categorically denied that Brazil would start an arms race with Venezuela.

Power Projection and Protection of Sea Lines of Communication: Whatever has motivated Brazil's program, its success would give the country a strategic capability to project power to help friends or deter adversaries anywhere in the world. In current foreign policy, aspirations to use this capability at long distances from the coast are not evident. But the ability to do so could influence the thinking of a future government. One contingency that could be developed would be greater naval involvement with African countries bordering the South Atlantic, which participate in the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Area. This was created in 1986 at Brazil's initiative, through a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly.

Additional Likely Considerations

Technological Development and Military Exports: The new document identifies restructuring of Brazil's defense industry as a principal objective, calling it "inseparable from national development strategy." President Lula linked this to the nuclear submarine program, possibly hoping to replicate the success of Embraer (Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica SA). That company developed an aircraft industry that adapted military technology to civilian uses. In 1969, the air force led the effort to create a company to build and export its military-designed Bandeirante commuter aircraft. In that case, "An aeronautics industry was justified as necessary to facilitate the continued growth and expansion of the nation. An aerospace complex was a sign of industrialization and international prestige." 8

Recognizing a symbiosis between military and industrial development, the Franco-Brazilian agreement on submarine construction provides for the transfer of French technology to not only the navy but also Brazilian firms, of which there are 30 supplying 36,000 items. It also envisions construction of a shipyard dedicated to the manufacture of nuclear submarines, and a new base for their use.

The defense minister emphasizes the strategic importance of a capable national-defense industry with autonomous technology. Discussing the new strategy, the minister of strategic affairs, Mangabeira Unger, said Brazil "wants to build a state-of-the-art weapons industry, one that would become an active exporter of arms." 9 That aspiration recalls the not-so-distant past. Arms exports have declined in recent years, but between 1975 and 1998, Brazil exported U.S. $963 million worth of military aircraft, along with armored vehicles valued at $1.7 billion. The nuclear submarine project, because of the dual-use nature of its reactor development, has been touted as holding the promise of enhancing both civilian and military exports.

Politics, Respect, and the United Nations Security Council: The new defense strategy can also be seen as a step in the implementation of an increasingly proactive foreign policy. One objective of this policy is to increase Brazil's international influence by fulfilling a longtime aspiration: a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Since reform of the United Nations came to the fore under the sponsorship of Secretary General Kofi Annan in the early 2000s, Brazil emerged as a prime candidate, along with Germany, India, and Japan, albeit without the veto right of the original five permanent (P-5) members. All the new candidates made the case that their countries had far greater prominence than when the United Nations was founded. But in each case, regional rivals have posed objections to their selection as permanent members of the UNSC.

Opposition to Brazil's candidacy has come from Mexico, Chile, and Argentina. Argentina has proposed a permanent seat for Latin America, the occupancy of which would be rotated among regional countries. 10 Brazil's leadership of the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti was seen as a way to burnish its claim. Like Brazil, Argentina and Chile have participated in U.N. peacekeeping operations, but Mexico has not.

If permanent membership were increased to include Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan, the Security Council would encompass all of the 9 largest national economies in the world. India and Brazil represent the second and fifth most populous countries respectively. Together with the P-5, the 9 countries rank among the 12 with the largest military expenditures. Of the candidates, only India has nuclear weapons. The P-5 all have nuclear ballistic-missile and attack submarines in their force structures. India reportedly plans to lease a nuclear attack submarine from Russia while it builds another.

Brazil's acquisition of a nuclear submarine capability would add an argument to the case that it so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice for a permanent seat. Speaking on the Day of the Sailor, Lula said that with the sub, "in a few years, Brazil will be one of the select group of nations that possess this indispensable capability for effective deterrence." 11 Brazil's sponsorship of the recently formed South American Defense Council can partly be seen as a diplomatic attempt to enhance its influence with neighbors. Figure 1 shows the relative strength of the countries' major attributes at this time.

A Challenge to Brazil: Building a nuclear submarine represents a substantial capital investment for a country still facing major developmental challenges, in which about a third of the population lives below poverty level. Expenditures for acquisition of the sub would be only the beginning of outlays, with the cost of educating the cadre required to develop and staff the vessels following closely.

Operation and maintenance would also pose challenges, especially in light of the considerable expense of maintaining safety in a nuclear propulsion plant. On this point, other countries with subs have an interest in the safety of Brazil's, because an accident could adversely affect the way nuclear propulsion is perceived elsewhere. On the other hand, the country has a positive record to date of handling nuclear power, as mentioned previously.

The resource requirements of the Brazilian program will compete with other priorities in its military. Some well-placed commentators have noted that the major powers resolved in the second half of the 20th century to reject conventional submarines and opt for nuclear propulsion. Yet, they argue, "conventional submarines are cheaper, more economical to maintain and operate, quieter and more versatile than nuclear submarines." 12

In a democracy, those wishing to justify an expensive new public program employ all relevant arguments. For Brazilians, technological advancement and export potential are strong considerations, just as they are in the United States. The appealing symbolism of acquiring cutting-edge technology to enhance a country's international prestige is understandable and normal.

The fact that the implications of nuclear subs for Brazilian maritime strategy are not clear at this time does not mean that they will not be important in the future. Such platforms and especially their ability to project the lethal power of torpedoes and cruise missiles anywhere in the world would outflank other Brazilian naval capability and could provide the impetus for an aggressive program to acquire complementary assets to support a strategy of global power projection.

This development would reflect—or could drive—a major reformulation of Brazil's grand strategy. Conversely, the nuclear submarines could end up as symbols of a technological achievement without a correspondingly significant change in military strategy. That symbolism could be reminiscent of the world tour of Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, which heralded the arrival of a nascent power with the prosperity and industrial prowess to operate globally. Although a nuclear submarine is stealthy by nature, its surfacing in a distant port could rapidly signal Brazil's achievement of a new level of prominence.


1. Minist e rio da Defesa, Estrat e gia Nacional de Defesa, www.defesa.gov.br , 2008. Translations of documents from the Portuguese are by the author.

2. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Discurso durante almoco de fim de ano dos Oficias-Generais da Marinha, Ex e rcito e Aeronautica, 11 December 2007.

3. "Alencar defende submarinos nucleares para ' desencorajar aventuras' contra soberania: Vice-presidente diz que embarcacoes sao necessarias para proteger as riquezas brasileiras," Eleicoes 2008 19 August 2008.

4. Nelson Jobim, "A Defesa na Agenda Nacional: O Plano Estrat e gico de Defesa," Interesse Nacional, Ano 1, Edicoo 2, July-September 2008.

5. Quoted in Claudio Camargo, "Em busca da soberania," Isto e, 28 January 2008.

6. Rear Admrial Antonio Ruy de Almeida Silva, "The New Threats and the Brazilian Navy," Revista da Escola de Guerra Naval, English edition, June 2006, p. 37.

7. "Brazil's Pursuit of a Nuclear Submarine Raises Proliferation Concerns," WMD Insights, March 2008, p. 2.

8. Patrice Franko-Jones, The Brazilian Defense Industry (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992), p. 118.

9. Bradley Brooks, "Brazil Spending $160 Million on Nuclear Propelled Sub," Associated Press, 29 August 2008.

10. Virgilio Caixeta Arraes, "O Brasil e o Conselho de Seguran ca da Organizacao das Nacoes Unidas: Dos Anos 90 a 2002," Revista Brasileira de Politica Internacional, July-December 2005.

11. "Em mensagem, Lula defende necessidade de submarino nuclear," O Estado de Sao Paulo, 11 December 2008.

12. Defesa Brasil, Meios Futuros para a Marinha do Brasil, Parte 6, Submarinos, defesabr.com/Mb/mb_meios futuros_Parte6.htm, accessed 8 May 2008.

Ambassador Taylor, a retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran, is a senior strategic researcher in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies of the U.S. Naval War College. He appreciates the research assistance and invaluable insights provided by Captain George P. Norman, former commanding officer of the USS Maine (SSBN-741).



Ambassador Taylor, a retired foreign service officer and Navy veteran, is a senior strategic researcher in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies of the U.S. Naval War College. He appreciates the research assistance and invaluable insights provided by Captain George P. Norman, former commanding officer of the USS Maine (SSBN-741).

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