Key point: The carrier is too old and problem-prone to be worth saving. And yet even if Brasília does manage to sell her, how will Brazil come up with a replacement carrier?
The Brazilian navy has begun auctioning off its only aircraft carrier. The attempted sale of Sao Paulo leaves the Brazilian fleet with just one aviation vessel, the helicopter carrier Atlantico. And it effectively strands the navy’s small fleet of carrier-compatible Skyhawk fighters.
This first appeared in September 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
The 33,000-ton-displacement Sao Paulo has a storied past, as Robert Beckhusen explained in a 2017 story. “Sao Paulo was originally the Foch, a Clemenceau-class carrier which first launched in 1960,” Beckhusen wrote. “During her 40 years in service with the French navy, Foch’s air wings dodged Yemeni MiGs, intervened in the Lebanese civil war and bombed Serbia during the Kosovo conflict.”
France sold Foch to Brazil in 2000, and the renamed Sao Paulo carried out exercises and launched Brazil’s AF-1 Skyhawk attack planes from her flat, catapult-launch deck — similar to U.S. carriers and the Charles de Gaulle, France’s sole remaining fleet carrier. ...
Brazil paid France $12 million for the carrier but sank $100 million more keeping her seaworthy Fires broke out aboard the vessel at least twice, once in 2004 — killing several sailors — and again 2012. The accidents forced costly repairs and kept the carrier in port for long periods of time.
Sao Paulo was supposed to rejoin the fleet in 2013, but the accidents kept sidelining her. “By the end of 2016, Sao Paulo was still undergoing repairs and there were reports that it might take another decade to get the ship fully operational again,” Joe Trevithick noted at The War Zone.
“By the time the Brazilian navy finally decided to just retire the ship in 2017, it was the world's oldest commissioned aircraft carrier,” Trevithick continued. “In the better part of two decades that the flattop had flown the Brazilian flag, she had spent just 206 days at sea.”
“That Brazil has even operated carriers, not to mention for decades, is all rather weird,” Beckhusen pointed out. “In strict military terms, a Brazilian carrier makes little sense … at least right now.”
Brazil’s primary threats do not come from the sea but from land, as Brazil shares its borders with 10 countries, some of which have histories of rebel insurgencies and ongoing troubles with cross-order organized crime groups. One of these countries, Venezuela, is unstable.
But Brazil has also invested in carriers for symbolic and political reasons. Actually, those are the primary reasons. Brazilian military officers and politicians want their country to be important — and important countries have carriers.
By 2017 the political value of the vessel couldn’t justify the cost and danger of keeping her functional. Sao Paulo’s auction leaves the navy’s AF-1 Skyhawks without a carrier to fly from.
“The decision to retire the ship has left the future of the AF-1s in limbo,” Trevithick explained.
In 2009, the Brazilian navy had hired the country's preeminent aviation firm Embraer to conduct a deep modernization program on nine of the 20 AF-1s and the three AF-1As for a total cost of approximately $140 million.
The resulting AF-1B and C variants, respectively, would have significant improvements, including all-new glass cockpits, hands-on-throttle-and stick-controls, digital radar-warning receivers, and advanced pulse doppler EL/M-2032 radars from Israel's Elta. The jets would also be able to carry new air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions and modern targeting pods. ...
Embraer only delivered the first and second AF-1Bs to the Brazilian navy in 2015 and 2016, respectively. VF-1 got its initial two-seat AF-1C just last year. Whether Brazil decides to acquire the full fleet of AF-1B/C aircraft could be dependent on whether or not another carrier is in the country's future.
As a partial replacement for Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2018 paid $115 million for the Royal Navy’s helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. But the 22,000-ton-displacement Ocean, which the Brazilians renamed Atlantico, cannot support fixed-wing aircraft.
It’s unclear what the Brazilian navy plans to do with its Skyhawks, and whether it considers Atlantico sufficiently prestigious to replace Sao Paulo.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in September 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest. Image: Reuters