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Brazil Sails Mostly Alone in Push to Modernize Submarine Fleet in South America

WASHINGTON — Earlier this month the Brazilian Navy held a ceremony at the Itaguaí Naval Complex (ICN) in Rio de Janeiro for the first plate cutting to commence the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine — a historic step for the South American nation on a modernization journey it’s traveling mostly alone.

In partnership with France’s Naval Group, Brazil’s PROSUB program aims to construct a fleet of four Scorpene-class submarines and one nuclear-powered boat.

In September, the first Scorpene, dubbed Riachuelo (commissioned in 2022), made its much-heralded debut in the waters off the South American coast as part of the Tropicalex 2023 naval exercise.

Analysts told Breaking Defense that PROSUB is a unique submarine fleet modernization push among South American nations, most of whom still rely on decades-old subs – and see little reason to upgrade anytime soon.

“The South American nations fortunate enough to operate submarines are content just to have surface capability,” Ryan Markey, former chief marine strategist at US Southern Command, told Breaking Defense. “They likely have not outlined a credible subsurface threat which would warrant the immense spending associated with modernizing their submarine fleet.”

The last major conflict involving a South American nation with a maritime theater of operations was the Falklands War in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Today, while there are occasional inter-state tensions — and security concerns related to Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, especially — the probability of interstate warfare is low. Therefore, any military officials trying to convince their government to invest in submarines that can’t really be used for much other than patrol and combat is a tough sell.

“It is difficult to imagine that [South American] navies can perform their missions without modern submarines, but it is complicated [to buy them] because it is more difficult to express their dual purposes,” as opposed to, say, surface vessels that can also be used for transport, according to Andres Serbin Pont, an analyst of international affairs and president of the Argentina-based think tank CRIES. Submarines, he said, “have a very particular and specific set of capabilities.”

Brazil’s Sub Modernization Plans

Brazil’s PROSUB indigenous submarine program is taking place alongside domestic construction of Tamandare frigate surface vessels, a combination meant to “safeguard Brazil’s waters, also called the Blue Amazon,” said Filipe Porto, a researcher at the Federal University of ABC in Brazil.

Brazilian waters are also home to natural resources that need protecting, Porto said. Therefore, “Brazil has found itself compelled to bolster its maritime surveillance capabilities.”

Brazil has generally cordial relations with its South American neighbors, most of which have significantly weaker capabilities than the Marinha do Brasil. Rather than a foreign armada attempting to seize Brazilian maritime resources or territory, other security threats are illegal fishing vessels and drug smugglers.

Still, Brazil is building up its navy as a precaution, and as an industrial incentive.

“We must not wait for a direct threat to have our forces well-equipped. This is the case for the conventional submarines,” explained Andrea Resende, professor at Brazil’s Belo Horizonte University (UNIBH).

Pride and boasting domestic capabilities are other reasons. Operating nuclear-powered sub “has been a long dream of Brazil since it developed its nuclear program in the 1970s. Yet it is only in 2008 that the program gained a boost via a partnership with France,” explained Resende.

Though underway in earnest now, Brasilia and Paris signed an agreement in 2008 to manufacture submarines in Brazil. Naval Group (formerly DCNS) has provided technical expertise. Besides Riachuelo, the other three subs — Humaitá, Tonelero and Angostura — are in different stages of construction and final testing.

Once completed, Álvaro Alberto, the nuclear sub, will be “the crown jewel of the Brazilian Navy since the reactor will be made with Brazilian technology,” added Resende.  Álvaro Alberto is expected to be launched by 2033, according to the Marinha.

Beyond Brasilia

Outside Brazil, the handful of South American countries that have sub fleets at all are generally dealing with models built in the 1970s and 1980s.

The only other regional service with some modern submarines is Chile, with the Scorpene-class Carrera and O’Higgins built in the 2000s, in addition to two other subs built in the 1980s.

The Chilean boats are no strangers to the US Navy, as the Carrera has visited at Naval Base Point Loma, San Diego, while Colombia’s Pijao has docked in Florida. The two South American subs participated in the latest version of the US Navy’s Diesel Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI) maneuvers last month. (Subs from several South American nations exercise with the US Navy, which Markey said gives the US the benefit of seeing how older, but still formidable, subs operate.)

The Peruvian Navy currently operates six subs, the largest underwater fleet in the region but also one of the oldest. The fleet is composed of four Angamos-class subs and two Islay-class subs. The Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA is repairing and modernizing the Angamos subs to extend their operational life. Similarly, Ecuador’s shipyard ASTINAVE provides maintenance services to that country’s two subs, BAE Huancavilca and BAE Shyri.

Meanwhile, Colombia operates four subs. Bogota increased the fleet’s size by purchasing two subs a decade ago. Alas, ARC Intrépido and ARC Indomable are not new, they were built in the 1970s.

Argentina and Venezuela are reportedly in a particularly problematic situation, as their underwater fleets might not be operational. Argentina tragically lost the ARA San Juan and its crew of 44 in an accident in November 2017. San Juan’s sister boat, ARA Santa Cruz, has been rusting away in a hangar, undergoing mid-life upgrades, according to the Argentine media.

The fleet’s other sub is the ARA Salta, which welcomed a new commander this past February. Salta is currently docked at the navy’s Mar del Plata Naval Base, while the crew trains aboard. At press time, the Argentine Ministry of Defense and Navy had not responded to queries from Breaking Defense about the status of Santa Cruz and Salta.

Similarly, Venezuela’s navy is no Kraken of the Caribbean. The sub fleet comprises two subs, Caribe and Sábalo. While the surface fleet regularly carries out maneuvers to showcase its might and Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López posted in X (formerly Twitter) a video on 6 August to celebrate the 47th anniversary of Sábalo, neither sub has been seen in open waters in years. In late September, the Venezuelan military carried out the amphibious exercise Sovereignty 2023 with patrol vessels, offshore patrol vessels, and various aerial platforms. The Venezuelan government did not say if either sub participated. The Venezuelan navy did not respond to Breaking Defense’s request for comment for this report.

That’s not to say that no South American nations are interested in some kind of modernization. In September, Brazil decommissioned its Tupi-class submarine Tamoio, which could find a home in a less modern fleet.

“Outdated submarines still retain some value. They can be repurposed for training, provided they are taken out of active service. Another option is to sell them to neighboring nations to generate additional resources for defense,” Porto told Breaking Defense.

In 2019, Lima and Brasilia signed a cooperation agreement regarding submarines, so it’s plausible Peru could be interested in purchasing one of Brazil’s submarines, perhaps Tamoio, to replace its oldest boats.

In the meantime, it appears Brazil will remain at the forefront of modern sub fleets, which may suit its neighbors just fine – for now.

“Brazil is a recognized regional power but not a direct threat to the other maritime nations of South America,” Markey said. “A stronger, more technologically advanced Brazilian sub-force should be viewed as a positive for South America unless the geopolitical winds shift.”

Source: Breaking Defense