Let's Talk About Brazilian Submarines

James Holmes

Key Point: It'd be smart for Brazil to start wise investment in its own defense through submarine patrols.

“We have no concept of war,” confides a strategy professor at the Escola de Guerra Naval, or Brazilian Naval War College, in Rio de Janeiro—my home-away-from-home for part of last month and a place that unsucks, as the great Anthony Bourdain might say. Say what? Navies are fighting forces. They exist to duel rival navies. A navy that confronts no prospect of war is a force without purpose or direction. It’s rudderless.

Right?

Well, not exactly. The Marinha do Brasil, or Brazilian Navy, has more work to do than it can do. It is far from purposeless. But its work is noncombat work for the most part. That’s because Brazil has the good fortune to inhabit what Pentagon denizens call “permissive,” non-menacing strategic surroundings. The South Atlantic is free of great-power enmity. A friendly superpower navy, the U.S. Navy, furnishes a backstop should things abruptly go awry.

For the time being, anyway. The strategic setting as it exists today governs the service’s outlook. The naval leadership should cultivate what geopolitics maven Robert Kaplan terms “anxious foresight” about the future—and prepare accordingly.

Rather than gird to battle rival navies, the Brazilian Navy has long dedicated itself to constabulary duty. In effect it’s a super empowered coast guard, a combat service whose chief occupations consist of enforcing domestic law, guarding offshore natural resources from poachers, and helping Africans suppress piracy.

Concentrating on police duty makes perfect sense from Brasilia’s standpoint. If battle against high-seas foes appears far-fetched—if a navy has no concept of war but needs none—few governments would waste finite financial, material and human resources on preparing for it. The upshot: the Brazilian Navy dwells in a different strategic and mental universe from the U.S. Navy, and from any sea service that readies itself for war first and executes constabulary missions on a not-to-interfere basis with war preparations.

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