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Africa and South America , Naval

Brasilia's Pride; Why Brazil Can't Make Effective Use of its Second Hand European Carrier Warships HMS Ocean and Clemenceau

July 04th - 2018

With Brazil's Navy having received the 21,500 ton HMS Ocean helicopter carrying amphibious assault ship from the British Royal Navy, commissioning the warship as PHM Atlantico on June 29th 2018, the South American nation's potential uses for such a vessel have been brought to question. The HMS Ocean previously served as the flagship of the Royal Navy, with a similar roll to the Mistral Class ships in French and Egyptian service - a far lighter equivalent to the United States' 40,000 ton Wasp Class carriers. The ships are designed for power projection, namely for amphibious landings of Marines and vehicles to contested or hostile territory while deploying rotary wing aircraft for air support. For Britain, which seeks to retain its status as a major world military power with global power projection capabilities - maintaining naval facilities abroad in strategic regions such as the Persian Gulf and taking part in military exercises in the Pacific, such a light carrier was a cost effective way of maintaining military aviation capabilities until the induction of heavier aircraft carriers - the Queen Elizabeth Class. For Brazil however, which has not deployed military force abroad and shown no signs of doing so, the usefulness of such a platform remains highly questionable.

Months before agreeing to purchase the HMS Ocean Brazil retired its 32,800 ton flagship - the aircraft carrier SaoPaulo. A Clemenceau Class carrier commissioned in 1960 for the French Navy, the platform was purchased in 2000 after forty years in French service and was essentially obsolete. The São Paulo was demobilized in February 2017 after just 17 years in service, and Brazil had failed to make any significant use of the vessel. The carrier was never equipped with modern aircraft, fielding only a small contingent of antiquated A-4 light attack fighters - a design dating back to 1956. The carrier did not undergo significant modernisation, and It appeared that while acquiring the hulk of a second hand carrier was well within Brazil's means, maintaining and operating such a platform to its full capacity and acquiring modern aircraft for its deck were not. The São Paulo gave the Brazilian military the prestige of being a 'carrier power', but this was essentially its only role and the title was rather hollow considering the warship's underwhelming capabilities in Brazilian hands.

Modernizing and operating an assault ship such as the HMS Ocean is less costly that the São Paulo would have been, particularly as modern fighters for the larger warship would have been well beyond the Navy's budget. To acquire just two F-18 light fighters to operate from the São Paulo deck for example would cost approximately as much as the HMS Ocean itself, without modern missiles, operational, training and maintenance costs. Such aircraft are among the cheapest modern replacements available - the only alternative being reliance on the essentially obsolete A-4. The fact still remains however that, as a dedicated power projection platform, an amphibious assault ship such as the Ocean has little use in the Brazilian military. Brazil lacks a capable surface navy capable of forming even a basic carriers strike group around a carrier, with no destroyers at all and smaller warships making use of dated technologies. The Ocean would thus be effectively unprotected against an even remotely capable adversary, and putting it to the field given the current state of the Brazilian Navy remains a considerable risk. 

Though Brazil does have some tensions with Venezuela, a nation with which it does not share a border, the Ocean would be effectively useless in landing troops for an assault against the country. Brazil's Navy lacks the capabilities to support such an assault, namely to protect the ship from air attacks against which it would be highly vulnerable - particularly considering the potency of the Venezuelan Air Force's fighters and the short range of Brazil's own mediocre fighter fleet which would prevent them from providing any air support against Venezuelan targets. Even if this were not the case, the Ocean has a capability to carry just 830 Marines and 40 armored vehicles - potentially sufficient for storming outlying islands such as Margarita and Cubagua but wholly ineffective for an assault on the country's mainland without supporting capabilities. Brazil's Navy sorely lacks the ability to provide such support. Considering that the Ocean's presence would almost certainly be detected should it approach Venezuelan waters, lacking any modern capabilities to evade the country's advanced radar systems, the warship and any disembarking units would be noticed and would hardly be of sufficient size to achieve any meaningful objectives without support.

Maintaining the only carrier warship on the South American continent grants Brazil considerable prestige. As such the HMS Ocean, serving as the PHM Atlantico, is most likely to serve as a symbol of Brazilian power as the São Paulo did before it - but do little else. The country's extremely limited naval capabilities means means the Brazilian Navy will be not able to deploy the light carrier with effectiveness even remotely comparable to the British Royal Navy. Brazil is not set to become a major naval power capable of projecting force or conducting effective amphibious landings - and the acquisition of a single light amphibious assault ship will do little to change that. Brazil lacks the will or the incentive to invest in a major military modernisation program, and as a result carriers will most likely remain ornamental Brazil's military. 

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