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Sao Paulo Put Out to Pasture

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Sao Paulo carrier.jpg
Sao Paulo. CC BY-SA 3.0

Brazil has decided to retire, rather than refurbish, the Sao Paulo:

On 15 February, the Brazilian Navy announced the retirement of the SAO PAULO aircraft carrier (the former FOCH). Since Argentina has similarly demobilised the 25 DE MAYO, the era of aircraft carriers as capital ships in Latin America might now have come to an end.

With 37 years’ operational service at the time of its acquisition from France, the SAO PAULO has a proud history in the service of two nations, with several attempts made at enhancing its operational capacity. However, Brazilian naval authorities decided that the technical uncertainties involved in so large-scale a programme, coupled with the likely high cost and extended timescale (ten years, according to some observers), made it preferable to retire the carrier.

While a replacement programme has not been altogether ruled out, it would at best take third place in the hierarchy of naval projects, after the nuclear submarine project and the construction of the new NL-class corvettes. Both are less expensive than the putative replacement of the SAO PAULO and acquisition of a modern carrier-compatible aircraft. Even if the carrier were to be modernised, the existing fleet of F-1 (A-4M SKYHAWKs) would reach the end of their service life by the time the programme could be completed.

This will drop the number of navies capable of operating CATOBAR (catapult-assist-take-off-arrestor-recovery) to two; the US and France.  Word is that the second domestically built Chinese carrier will have steam catapults, and INS Vishal may have electromagnetic catapults if she ever enters service.

I don’t like the idea of a nuclear submarine project for Brazil; too much overhead for too little return, especially given the defense commitments that Brazil has. I can’t quibble overmuch with the decision to scrap Sao Paulo, though. Refurbishing the carrier would have been expensive, and the acquisition of replacement aircraft for the A-4 Skyhawks (which are approaching the end of their useful lives) would also have cost more than Brazil could credibly spend. As I’ve argued in the past, the best naval investment for Brazil would be a decent-sized amphib, which would give Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) capabilities and command facilities in addition to some high-level warfighting capacity.

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