Photo Jonathan Blair

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brazil: Defense policy as industrial policy, and more

This morning's Estado de São Paulo has a piece on Brazil's plans for a massive development of its submarine stable,  with six nuclear ships and twenty conventional ones, six of which refurbished. The project is big and long-term, with at least 3 billion Euros for the nuclear part alone and a schedule of delivery for the program as a whole that extends to 2047.

There is a security rationale to the move, with Brazil's growing reliance on off-shore oil and gas deposits possibly justifying the development of a capacity to protect them. The problem is, over such a long time frame, who knows what threat will emerge and how handy submarines will be to tackle it, making for a somewhat flimsy case for such a massive investment.

In the shorter term, however, the project fits very well with two central objectives of Brazil's industrial and foreign policy. On the development side, the plan is consistent with Brazil's systematic preference for technology transfer and the development of a domestic capability in high-tech industrial capacity. The forthcoming announcement regarding fighter jets will clearly rely on a similar rationale, with technology transfer, not narrowly-defined military capabilities THE critical factor (more on this on this blog soon). The technology will come from France and Brazil will pay dearly for it (the cost of the first subs is currently estimated at 2bn Euros), as it probably will for the fighter jets. But construction will be done in Brazil, and Brazilian companies will get the know-how.

Beyond a pattern that is generalized in Brazil's military procurement--another example is the new large transport plane being developed by Embraer--there is a second component to the submarine announcement whose implications are clearly short-term: Brazil is trying to gain a louder voice in the global nuclear debate without--for now at least--getting nuclear weapons. This in turn is part of an equation that underlies much of Brazil's recent behaviour on the nuclear front, including its disastrous foray in the Iran controversy: all the members of the security council have nuclear capabilities, and Brazil wants in, badly.

So, while developing a nuclear weapons program looks like a very risky proposition, from a diplomatic standpoint, Brazil tries to claim a piece of the nuclear turf by making a minor fuss on inspection, by announcing plans to develop a domestic nuclear capability that arguably it does not need--given its already ultra-diversified and low-carbon energy matrix--and now, by moving into nuclear-powered submarines.