April 20, 2012

Brazil's Nuclear Submarine Program

Brazil to build four conventional and one nuclear Scorpene (click to enlarge)

Professor Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the US Naval War College has written the following article Brazil's Nuclear Submarine Program in his blog the (ex) washington realist:

Brazil is going to try and develop an indigenous capability to build and deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Ambassador Paul Taylor (of the US Naval War College) asks in the current issue of [US Naval Institute] Proceedings, "Why does Brazil need nuclear submarines?" A related question is how does this help or hinder U.S. interests?

[Brazilian] President Lula sees the ability to master this complicated military technology as an important national interest, recently noting that "Brazil will be one of the select group of nations that possess this indispensable capability for effective deterrence." The Brazilian Navy sees having nuclear submarines as part of a toolbox of being able to play a greater role in regional and global efforts to patrol the seas and keep lines of communication open.

Taylor quotes Rear Admiral Antonio Ruy de Almeida Silva, who argues that Brazil has to take much more responsibility for protecting its maritime patrimony:

"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."

And as Brazil increases its cooperation with South Africa and India for patrolling and securing the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans, having such capabilities increases the clout of this regional organization.

What's the U.S. interest? Do we want more states to have advanced capabilities that previously were largely an American preserve? Would a nuclear submarine capability make Brazil more assertive against U.S. interests? Or can burdens be shared or passed along to other states? In other words, is this a positive step which shows that an emerging great power like Brazil is preparing to shoulder greater responsibilities for the defense of "international public goods" like the sea-lanes?

Discussion of France's Scorpene construction offer, Brazilian and Argentinian nuclear developments, and the future Australian submarine were all contained in a Australia in the Indian Ocean post Will Australia Go the Nuclear Powered Submarine Route? of March 3, 2008.

Development of nuclear propulsion is a huge undertaking - more complex, I think, than producing an enriched uranium bomb. A naval reactor normally needs uranium enriched to bomb grade so the enrichment requirements are similar.

If Brazil builds up the advanced level of nuclear expertise to build naval reactors and stockpiles the necessary bomb grade uranium then nuclear weapons for Brazil are a tempting next step, particularly for warheads on land attack missiles deployed by nuclear propelled submarines.

Argentina, which has a moderately advanced nuclear sector (less so than Brazil) would feel
nervous having a nuclear propelled or armed neighbour and would wish to follow Brazil's lead.

Under subheading "The Submarine Project" of his article Ambassador Taylor advises:

"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 Scorpene 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 US ordinarily resents foreign powers meddling in Latin American arms industries especially on a large scale and nuclear level. But the US may have made an exception with France (newly cooperative concerning NATO) and a partial counterbalance to Russian influence (mainly Venezuela) in Latin America.

The stipulation that France not help with the Brazilian reactor should taken with a pinch of salt. Development of hull for a nuclear sub involves many technical pointers as to the dimensions and other characteristcs of a reactor. The French technicians and engineers assisting spend most of their careers building nuclear submarines and reactors for France. A huge amount of verbal advice can be given - avoiding some of the need for written technical instructions - that would so embarrass the Americans.

From the American point of view its better that France a friend help proliferate nuclear submarines (as France helped Israel build the Bomb) than have the Russians do it instead.

A Brazilian nuclear submarine (extra smooth, of course ;) also provides a political opening (excuse) for Australia to develop its own - with French or even US help. Perhaps Australia might build 6 nuclear subs after the first six large conventional subs built in 2020-30.

Professor Gvosdev implies that Brazilian nuclear subs may operate in the Indian Ocean in time.

Wouldn't proliferation of nuclear subs to middle ranking powers, like Brazil and Australia, complicate the job of the Indian Navy?