Image Source: Reuters
As the AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States continues to make headlines with its nuclear-powered submarines, another non-nuclear weapon state’s pursuit of the same capability went unnoticed. On October 4th, the Brazilian state-owned defense company Itaguaí Construções Navais and the Brazilian Navy cut the first steel plates of a test section of the Álvaro Alberto submarine, a small but significant milestone in Brazil’s quest for a nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed, attack submarine. The cut is a symbolic first step for a program decades in the making. One year after the landmark re-election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and on the back of a second Brazilian presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this year, the Brazilian case warrants revisiting. Still lacking a convincing strategic rationale, its pursuit of naval nuclear propulsion fulfills a long-held ambition for great power status, which has challenged nonproliferation norms.
Commentators expected Lula’s first year back in office to be a time of foreign policy reinvention. Responsibilities on the new president’s mind included undoing the damage of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s polarizing tenure, which alienated allies and shirked Brasilia’s long-held reputation as a responsible emerging global leader. However, progress has been inconsistent. Hopes that “Brazil is back” have been tempered by tensions with the West, provoked by Lula’s courting of the PRC and Venezuela and ambiguity on the war in Ukraine. Lula’s difficulties in staking a real claim for Brazilian great power status were on show most recently at a landmark BRICS summit where Beijing undercut the president on various issues. Amidst the turbulence, Lula agrees with his predecessor that Brazil needs a nuclear-powered submarine. Obtaining a technology fielded only by a handful of states worldwide may yield the global recognition the country craves – and a permanent seat on the UNSC. However, the strategic case for huge expenditure on the controversial program remains as unconvincing as when Lula launched the plan in 2008.
Strategic Rationale for a Brazilian Nuclear Submarine
Brazil’s pursuit of nuclear-powered submarines stands apart from Australia’s because the South American nation has an autonomous, domestic nuclear fuel cycle for civilian and military purposes. This autonomy has long driven the country’s pursuit of a nuclear-powered submarine program, which President Lula initiated within the Program for the Development of Submarines (PROSUB).
Brazil’s 2008 National Defense Strategy established the strategic rationale for PROSUB, laying out three strategic maritime goals – “sea denial,” “sea control,” and “power projection.” Lula interpreted these goals as securing the country’s vast 8,500km “Blue Amazon” exclusive economic zone, including undersea oil reserves. However, the 2008 strategy also indicates Brazil’s relative “peace with its neighbors.” The juxtaposition of Brasilia’s security environment with its submarine ambitions prompted U.S. military examiners to comment that the strategy “provides little plausible military justification” for PROSUB.
Fourteen years on, this accusation still rings true despite the fragile global security environment. Nuclear-powered submarines excel in far-flung deterrence missions, capitalizing on their endurance, speed, and relative quietness over diesel counterparts. It is telling that only six countries deploy them today—the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, PRC, and India—all nuclear-weapon states whose submarines also serve a deterrence mission. Larger and far less nimble than diesel-powered submarines, nuclear-powered ones are not well-equipped for littoral missions, which Brazilian strategy suggests would be a crucial part of their function. For a country secure in its neighborhood and with a primary concern for a localized—if sizable—expanse of ocean and offshore energy reserves, the considerable cost of building the Álvaro Alberto appears unjustified.
That may point to an ulterior motive reflective of Brazil’s persisting foreign policy ambitions and the nature of its civil-military affairs. Brasilia’s desire for a nuclear-powered submarine reaches as far back as 1979 under the country’s military dictatorship, etched as “one of the Brazilian Navy’s ultimate dreams.” Lula once opposed the capability, but as he charts a new path for a country still fissured by Bolsonaro’s reign, the president wrestles for the support of the military, who remained worryingly loyal to his predecessor. A landmark $10 billion defense PAC that bolstered funding for PROSUB, among other projects, earlier this year was a significant gesture in doing so.
Ultimately, Lula’s deference to the military serves his domestic and foreign interests. Countries view nuclear weapons as a fast track to great power status, and Brazil has craved it longer than most. Lula may just be banking that a nuclear-powered submarine will push the country’s long-term fight for a permanent seat on the UNSC closer to reality. Those in the military, including then-chief of the Navy’s General Staff Admiral Júlio Saboya, were not shy about those ambitions in 2008. It is a monumental, costly bargain on the status influence of nuclear technology, pushing the limits of rigid nonproliferation regime norms that Brazil has long championed.
Why Brazil Matters for Nuclear Nonproliferation Norms
When the Brazilian Navy commissions the Álvaro Alberto sometime in the early 2030s, Brazil may become the first non-nuclear weapon state to deploy a nuclear-powered submarine, beating out Australia. It is difficult to overstate the precedent of this achievement. Brazil’s unique ability to do so via an indigenous fuel cycle has effectively made the process “irreversible” and forced shifts in International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards that seek to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. While the probability of a Brazilian nuclear weapons program and the further proliferation of costly nuclear-powered submarines is remote, there is little margin for error in these uncharted waters. Politics and leaders change. Brazil appears to be counting on its new submarine to elevate its global status without making tough foreign policy decisions or building a convincing military strategic case. Expanding or reimagining a frequently deadlocked UNSC may not be bad. However, the body should carefully navigate the process to avoid attaching status to nuclear latency or capabilities. The global nonproliferation regime necessitates it.