Boosting your defence industry – Brazilian style
In an era when many Western countries such as the UK are reducing, or even eliminating, their ability to manufacture defence equipment, it’s a refreshing change to be in a country that’s taking the opposite approach.
Last week I attended the LAAD exhibition in Rio de Janeiro and got a first-hand look at what is driving procurement in Latin America and how countries such as Brazil are bolstering both defence capabilities and domestic industry.
While roaming the exhibition floor and speaking to several industry representatives, it was hard not to notice that one of the key themes was Brazil’s continuing efforts to build its industrial base and ensure the equipment needs of its armed forces are, for the most part, provided for by Brazilian industry.
Over the last decade, Brazil has embarked on several major strategic programmes that have the core aim of enhancing the capabilities of the army, navy and air force, while at the same time building the country’s defence industrial base. Those supplying defence equipment to Brazil – Latin America’s biggest defence spender – including major western defence suppliers, have generally had to promise significant offsets in order to secure contracts in the country.
Because of this aggressive approach, Brazil will eventually have the capability to manufacture its own armoured vehicles, advanced fighter jets and transport aircraft, and even conventional and nuclear-powered submarines. To put that into perspective, the UK can manufacture ships and submarines, but it no longer has the capacity to independently manufacture military aircraft or armoured vehicles (the Scout SV, for example, will be built mostly in Spain).
Clearly none of this can be achieved alone, which means Brazil remains heavily dependent on western know-how and the transfer of key technologies.
French shipbuilders DCNS is helping the country build its first fleet of conventional and nuclear submarines (designated the S-BR and SN-BR) as part of Programa de Desenvolvimento de Submarinos (or PROSUB). Italian manufacturers Iveco are building more than 2,000 armoured vehicles, while Swedish firm Saab will team up with Embraer to build at least 36 Gripen fighter jets in Brazil.
All these acquisition projects have one thing in common; the end product will be built in Brazil, by Brazilians, with as many Brazilian parts as possible. This has required building infrastructure from scratch including new submarine facilities at Itaguaí Shipyard, Rio de Janeiro. DCNS has partnered with the Brazilian infrastructure giant Oderbrecht to make this a reality. In December, the main hall at Itaguaí was inaugurated by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
Iveco and Embraer already have existing facilities set up in Brazil, but the additional government work will undoubtedly raise the prospect of expansion over the coming years.
But it’s not just about assembling pre-manufactured parts – like many offset deals, Brazil is keen to build and retain the technical and engineering skills that are associated with designing, building and maintaining complex weapons platforms. On PROSUB, Brazilian companies (both state-owned and private) will take the design lead on the nuclear elements of the SN-BR vessel, with the propulsion system being developed indigenously. DCNS will only play an advisory role on the nuclear boat and assist with integration.
Design work on an 8×8 reconnaissance variant (VBR-MR) of the army’s 6×6 Guarani armoured vehicle will take place at the company’s engineering facility in Sete Lagoas, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Iveco has already built 174 6×6 vehicles in Brazil and has a contract to build 2,000 APCs over the next 20 years. The tender for the 8×8 VBR-MR’s 105mm gun – of which around 100 will be produced – also stipulates that it must be built in Brazil.
Brazil has experience indigenously designing and building military vehicles, principally with the Engesa EE-9 Cascavel and EE-11 Urutu, but that experience has waned since the company went bankrupt in the 1990s.
Today, several Brazilian companies (some with the assistance of western firms) are competing for the army’s 4×4 light vehicle requirement, which is part of the Guarani strategic programme. These include Avibras, working with Renault; Grupo Inbra Filtro; and Iveco Latin America. As with other programmes, the tender calls for the ‘nationalisation’ of production and domestic assembly.
As part of the Gripen agreement signed between Saab and Embraer at the LAAD exhibition this year, Brazilian engineers will be jointly responsible for the complete development of the Gripen F fighter – the Brazilian Air Force has eight twin-seat F-models on order so far.
Embraer will also be responsible for systems development, integration, flight testing, final assembly and deliveries of the Swedish fighter jet. An engineering centre at Embraer’s industrial plant in Gavião Peixoto, Sao Paulo, is also on the drawing board.
Embraer could eventually export the Gripen E/F aircraft it produces in Brazil for other countries across Latin America and also Africa. The company has already experienced significant success with its commercial aircraft such as the EMB190 – used by airlines across the world on regional routes – as well as its military aircraft such as the EMB314 Super Tucano, primarily used as a trainer and light attack aircraft.
Challenges remain, however, and programmes such as PROSUB and Gripen are still in their very early stages.
DCNS told me at LAAD that it was still on track to commission the first submarine by 2018, with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th conventional boats following soon after. It’s an optimistic timeline, especially for a country that has limited experience building submarines.
You only have to look at other submarine projects, such as Britain’s Astute programme, to realise that delays and cost overruns are a very real possibility.
Questions also remain on how Brazil will retain its submarine-related manufacturing skills after the last boats are delivered in the next decade. The skills fade issue is well known in the UK, where a ten year gap developed between the building of the last Vanguard class submarine and the start of the Astute class programme.
Nevertheless, Brazil and its foreign partners must be praised for their efforts so far. The government has a clear defence industrial strategy that puts Brazilian jobs and skills first, while at the same time aiming to significantly improve the capabilities of the Brazilian Armed Forces. The three strategic programmes mentioned here – PROSUB, Guarani and Gripen – are so far going according to plan and still have the full financial backing of the government.
How it will look in the next five years is difficult to say – particularly as programmes advance into more complex stages – but the signs are still positive.