Cablegate: Brazil's Nuclear Submarine Ambitions

O 151856Z JAN 08


Classified By: Ambassador Clifford Sobel. Reason 1.5 (b) (d)


E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/08/2018

1. (U) This is n action request - see para 9.

2. (C) SUMMARY. Brazil's leadership, including President Lula and Defense Minister Jobim, have expressed support for production of a Brazilian nuclear submarine in recent months. While serious questions exist as to the proposed vessel's military utility and affrodability, it enjoys strong support both for reasons of perceived national prestige and for its pssible benefits to Brazil's nuclear power industry. Although the submarine program may well collapse under its cost burden and technological challenges, Brazil appears determined to proceed with consideration of this project, as Jobim has already gone on record saying that he expects to proceed with support from Russia and France. U.S. opposition at this point would likely only increase support within Brazil for the nuclear submarine program. Brazil is a member of the NPT and, provided it maintains a strong compliance record, its naval propulsion program is not necessarily a proliferaton risk. Moreover, Mission believes that U.S. spport for Brazil's naval modernization, including submarine technology where appropriate -- subject to regular export control measures -- would help forge stronger connection to the Brazilian defense industry and military. END SUMMARY.

3. (C) Brazil's nuclear submarine program, begun in the late 1970s, has been reinvigorated by high-level support. President Lula, an opponent of nuclear power and the military in his union leader days, announced on July 10, 2007 that he would seek funding to build a nuclear submarine. Defense Minister Jobim stated in November that he was looking for a plan to proceed with construction. These proposals are part of a broader Brazilian effort, driven by increasing awareness of the shortcomings of the Brazilian military, to modernize Brazil's military forces and defense srategy. Jobim and Long-Term Planning Minister Rberto Mangabeira Unger are heading up a special ommission to rethink Brazil's national defense srategy (to be reported septel), which will presumbly set the framework for future development and purchases of military hardware. The commission is due to complete its work in September. Such defense restructuring could present opportunities fo expanding U.S.-Brazilian cooperation, and because of the high level support, an indication that the U.S. would be prepared to work with Brazil's submarine program as appropriate could open the door to improved ties with the Hemisphere's second largest military and defense industry. However, while cooperation with Brazil's defense modernization is in U.S. interests, it should not be limited to one area The nuclear submarine's high costs and limited military utility may again put the program on the rocks, making it unwise to limit cooperation to this area.

WHY A NUCLEAR SUBMARINE? -------------------------------------------

4. (SBU) Brazil has long harbored ambitions for building nuclear submarines. A large part of its motivation comes from a perception that, in order to be taken seriously as a world power, such vessels will be necessary. In July President Lula was quoted as saying "I think we would be more highly valued as a nation (with a nuclear submarine)." All of the UN Security Council's permanent members operate nuclear subs, and fellow UNSC aspirant India has leased a Russian sub and is building its own version. More than just keeping up with the Guptas, Brazil also sees the submarine program as a boost to its domestic nuclear power industry. Lula has made improved nuclear power generation a priority, and could gain support for its funding by linking it to a project of national prestige. The submarine project could also allow Brazil to take advantage of the NPT provision that exempts naval propulsion from IAEA safeguards, a potentially important point when Brazil has disputed IAEA access to specific areas of its nuclear facilities.

5. (SBU) There are, however, several serious obstacles to Brazil's nuclear submarine program. The most significant is cost. Brazilian press estimates are that building a nuclear sub will cost over half a billion dollars (production costs of U.S. subs are around USD 4 billion). Even if this figure were correct, it would be a significant percentage of Brazil's USD 13 billion defense budget. Brazil has other urgent defense priorities, including modernization and replacement of virtually all its aircraft and many of its armored vehicles, not to mention its conventional naval units. Brazil also faces important technological barriers to producing fuel for a naval reactor, which would require a higher level of enrichment than fuel for a civilian power reactor. Prior submarine research has also encountered difficulty developing of technology for a pressure hull.

6. (SBU) There is no military reason why Brazil should deploy a nuclear sub. Traditional missions for such vessels, long range power projection and long time on station capability, are not part of Brazilian naval doctrine. Defense Minister Jobim made headlines in November by announcing that Brazil's nuclear sub would be used to protect recent offshore oil discoveries. Even if a threat to the oil fields existed, it could be met more effectively, and economically, by conventional vessels. In reality, a nuclear submarine would not improve Brazil's security apart from a dubious boost to national machismo.

7. (C) In his November statement, Jobim said he expected to purchase submarine technology from France, which would have fewer restrictions. While Brazil will ultimately approach both France and Russia, Jobim and Unger have also made clear that they would like access to U.S. technology, which in many areas is clearly superior. Offers to discuss access to U.S. technology on a program personally important to Jobim can open the door to other more practical issues. In a January 14 meeting with Ambassador Sobel, Unger mentioned the fuel cycle, hull development, software and weaponry as areas for possible U.S. contributions.

ELEMENTS OF A U.S. POSITION -------------------------------------------

8. (C) Brazil is currently considering a much-needed defense modernization, a key element of which will be augmenting Brazil's navy. Building a nuclear submarine could undermine Brazil's overall effort by diverting resources to a program that would not improve military effectiveness. That said, U.S. opposition would almost certainly serve to strengthen Brazilian resolve to press on. With Lula and Jobim providing strong public support, it is likely that efforts to build a Brazilian nuclear submarine will continue. We can avoid provoking a negative reaction from the GOB on this issue and potential defense cooperation in other areas by maintaining our general openness to cooperating with military modernization, including submarine technology, and not taking a specific position at this time on Brazil's nuclear submarine program. Nonetheless, we need to be sure that our discussion encompasses not just submarines, but other fields for potentially beneficial cooperation. Brazil should also maintain its good record on proliferation issues, including resolving its issues with the IAEA. Singing an additional protocol with IAEA would provide a higher level of access to Brazilian nuclear facilities and facilitate assistance to Brazil's nuclear industry. We also need to make clear that any exports of U.S. technology would be subject to U.S. Arms Export Control Act restrictions, including necessary end use and retransfer assurances. In our discussions with the GOB, we can highlight that Brazil will be treated equally with U.S. allies and offer to address Brazilian concerns on this issue during our upcoming political-military consultations. .

Comment and Action Request:

9. (C) Brazil's white whale may ultimately become stranded on the reefs of technical challenges and cost overruns, but continued openness to cooperation at a time when Brazil will be making important decisions about its future security strategy and forces can have longer term benefits to the U.S.-Brazil relationship. The nuclear submarine program, with its high-level backing, can provide a catalyst for a greater U.S. role in other modernization projects. Jobim will almost certainly raise this issue with SecDef Gates on his visit to Washington in March. As we prepare for this visit, mission requests Washington concurrence with this approach and guidance on next steps for potential defense cooperation.

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