LONDON — Brazil’s ambition to build a modern Navy with regional and sometimes global reach took a big step forward in February, when President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated a submarine-building facility that could eventually construct a fleet of nuclear-powered boats.
Rousseff’s presence at the Itaguai facility at the Brazilian Navy’s base on Sepetiba Bay near Rio de Janeiro was the culmination of a near three-year building program undertaken by local company Odebrecht and its joint venture partner, France-based DCNS, to provide the industrial capability to deliver four of the French company’s conventionally powered Scorpene submarines.
The potential for new naval business in Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America, lies behind the attendance of a large number of maritime companies at the upcoming LAAD Defense and Security show due to kick off in Rio on April 9.
Companies from Britain, China, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the U.S. and elsewhere are among the list of international naval suppliers with a presence at the show.
All of them will be looking for signs as to whether Brazil’s slowing economy and high spending requirements to fund upcoming international sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics will affect the scope and timing of naval update plans.
The Brazilian Navy already operates submarines, but the new unit at Sepetiba Bay is the first time local industry has had a facility to build its own boats. Besides being home to a submarine construction yard, plans call for the Sepetiba Bay facility to house a submarine base able to accommodate and support up to 10 vessels.
Aside from the four diesel-electric boats, the submarine deal agreed to by the French and Brazilian governments in 2008 includes DCNS assistance in the design and production of a nuclear-powered submarine — although the Brazilians alone would be responsible for the reactor.
DCNS is building the forward section of the first Scorpene submarine at its Cherbourg plant in northern France and shipping it over to Itaguai, a company spokeswoman said.
The remainder of the program will be undertaken in country as part of Brazilian moves to build local industrial capabilities across the defense sector.
The first of four submarines in the PROSUB program is due for delivery in 2017, the second in 2018, third in 2020 and fourth in 2021, she said.
The first nuclear-powered submarine is due in 2025, adding Brazil’s name to an exclusive club with the capability: Britain, China, France, India, Russia and the U.S.
Some European executives, though, are concerned whether Brazil, even with non-nuclear assistance from an experienced submarine builder such as DCNS, can meet the in-service target date for the nuclear-propelled attack craft.
Worse than that, they say, the program could divert funds from other weapons programs if it is hit by serious budget overruns.
Beefing up their submarine capabilities isn’t the only naval update the Brazilians are eyeing.
Offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), frigates, an aircraft carrier, inshore patrol craft and eventually logistics support vessels will all likely figure in an update of a surface fleet, which will look pretty tired by 2017, executives said.
Last month saw the surface fleet expand with the handover of the second of three offshore patrol boats acquired from British shipbuilder BAE Systems.
A contract with a local shipbuilder for a batch of inshore patrol craft could be awarded in the next few weeks, executives said.
They add that the award could be followed this year by a consulting deal between Brazil and an overseas yard in what is likely to be the first step toward designing an aircraft carrier to replace the Sao Paulo, the ex-French carrier Clemenceau, by the middle of the next decade.
BAE, Fincantieri, Navantia and others are vying to secure what would be a key deal ahead of Brazil moving toward design and construction.
The Brazilians have begun updating other parts of the surface fleet with the 133 million pound ($201 million) purchase of three OPVs from BAE in January 2012.
The agreement also includes a manufacturing license to allow for a further batch of vessels to be built locally — although there is no guarantee the Brazilians won’t look elsewhere to build up OPV numbers.
The Brazilians have been talking to the British and other contenders about their frigate requirements, and have had engineers embedded for several months in the BAE-led team designing the Type 26 Global Combat Ship for the Royal Navy.
Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.