|Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff makes the symbolic first cut of a steel plate - marking the beginning of submarine production [EPA]
Plans for a Brazilian nuclear submarine that had been postponed since the 1970s are beginning to materialise, as the nuclear-propelled sub is regarded as a strategic necessity to guard Brazil's deep water oil reserves, and to project global power.
Steel plates piled up in a warehouse at Nuclebrás Equipamentos Pesados (NUCLEP), a mixed capital company in Itaguaí, about 80km from Rio de Janeiro, are labelled "submarine plates".
President Dilma Rousseff made the symbolic "first cut" of a steel plate on July 16 at a ceremony marking the start of operations at the shipyard where the submarine hulls will be built.
"This is a very special moment", she said in her speech launching the Brazilian navy's submarine development programme (ProSub), which will initially produce four conventional S-BR submarines using French technology.
"Brazil is taking another step toward affirming its status as a developed country with sophisticated industry capable of absorbing, mastering and using advanced technologies."
ProSub originated in a December 2008 agreement between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
'Brazil is taking another step toward affirming its status as a developed country with sophisticated industry capable of absorbing, mastering and using advanced technologies.'
President Dilma Rousseff
Under the accord, France will transfer technological know-how to Brazilian industries involved in developing and building the submarines.
In addition, work has begun on building a shipyard, a naval base and a metal structures factory, and, according to the navy, more than 30 Brazilian companies are to start producing the more than 36,000 different components needed.
Brazil formed a company, Itaguaí Construçoes Navais (Itaguaí Naval Construction), as a partnership between the French state's DCNS (formerly Direction des Constructions Navales et Services), the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, and the Brazilian navy, which has veto rights.
The project is part of a more ambitious plan. According to the defence ministry, it is "the first step towards building a Brazilian nuclear-propelled submarine (SN-BR)," with delivery expected in 2023.
Brazil already has the uranium enrichment technology required for producing nuclear fuel, and wants to use it to power the submarine.
This is highly sensitive technology, mastered so far by only a select group of countries: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the view of political scientist Mauricio Santoro of the Rio-based Getulio Vargas Foundation, this is the Brazilian navy's most important and symbolic undertaking in recent decades.
Developed countries like the United States consider nuclear propulsion essential to their war fleets, Santoro said. Therefore, mastering this technology is "essential" for the Brazilian navy to create "a production prototype" that can subsequently be used in other naval vessels, such as aircraft carriers.
The Brazilian navy describes nuclear submarines as "one of the most complex naval vessels" ever invented, because of their tactical and strategic advantages over diesel-electric submarines, such as greater diving autonomy and speed, which allow them to undertake longer patrols of larger ocean areas.
Defensive, not aggressive, intentions
As Santoro recalls, Brazil has historical reasons to pursue this technology. The country joined in the First and Second World Wars because of German submarine attacks on Brazil's merchant navy in the South Atlantic, at a time when Brazil had no means of defending itself.
Moreover, as naval officers in Brazil never tire of arguing, the 1982 Malvinas-Falkland Islands war between the UK and Argentina would have had a different outcome if Argentina had had a fleet of nuclear submarines to back up its claim to the islands.
"From a strategic point of view, they are probably a navy's most effective defensive weapon," Santoro said.
Their use in defence, not attack, is always emphasised by the Brazilian government.
"The primary goal of this project is to modernise the navy and give it the tools to master the technology for the production of nuclear-propelled submarines, in a defence context, not an attacking role, because our country is committed to the principle of peace," Rousseff stressed.
William Gonçalves, an international relations expert at the Rio de Janeiro State University, said this is an important clarification that demonstrates that "Brazil has no expansionist or aggressive intentions," especially towards its South American neighbours.
The message is intended for these countries to "be aware that Brazil has specific strategic needs, but it is not fuelling an arms race, nor does it want to become a military power," he asserted.
In Gonçalves' view, a nuclear submarine is justified because "Brazil's strategic needs have changed".
This country of 190 million people needs to protect its maritime exclusive economic zone of 3.6 million square kilometres, especially since the recent discovery of huge oil deposits located deep below the sea bed under a thick layer of salt, which could provide its future domestic supplies and oil exports.
Rousseff said: "It's only fair that our navy should possess one of the means of guaranteeing this country's sovereignty and protecting its riches."
Gonçalves added that Brazil "has increasingly broad international responsibilities" related to political, energy, trade and environmental affairs. "Brazil is not a military power, nor does it aspire to be, but it is an increasingly influential international player," he stressed.
Santoro said there were other strategic motives, such as the need to watch over the 95 per cent of Brazilian foreign trade goods that are transported by sea.
A nuclear submarine would show "the importance Brazil attaches to its defence agenda", and to improving its technological capabilities.
The analyst also mentioned Brazil's aspiration to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. In his view, the country would need "armed forces that are better equipped to exercise that role".
Like Gonçalves, Santoro believes that ProSub's defensive role is emphasised "to assert the idea of a traditionally peaceful country that does not harbour expansionist aims, does not wish to enlarge its territory or conquer other countries, and does not want an imperialist arms race".
A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.