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The Beginning of the End – Carrier operations in Latin America to cease

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • April 07, 2017

    On February 14, 2017, the Brazilian Navy decided to begin the deactivation and decommissioning process for its sole aircraft carrier – the NAe A-12 Sao Paulo.1 Intended to be completed by 2020, this decision marks the beginning of the end of an era in South American naval and military aviation history. For the first time since 1958, not a single South American navy will operate an aircraft carrier, perhaps reflecting the relative military decline of the region as well as a recognition of the high costs of maintaining such ships.

    For nearly 60 years, either Brazil or Argentina – and often both – have operated aircraft carriers. Yet, the operational history of those vessels suggests that the acquisitions were not fully rationalised leading to their under-utilisation and, in the case of Argentina, of the vessel’s virtual impotence during conflict. Moreover, the aircraft operated by the respective vessels were increasingly obsolete rendering the utility of such vessels suspect.

    In many ways, the purchase, deployment, and operations of aircraft carriers in Latin America have parallels with the purchase of Dreadnought-type battleships by Brazil and Argentina in the early 20th century. Whether for deterrence, combat or prestige, Brazil’s Dreadnoughts – the Minas Gerias and Sao Paulo – were followed by Argentina ordering the more advanced Rivadavia and Moreno. Yet, none of these vessels ever saw combat, proved to be costly to operate, difficult to maintain and served more effectively as floating batteries than viable warships. One may make much the same case regarding the four aircraft carriers that have served the Argentine and Brazilian navies since 1958.

    The Independencia

    South America’s first aircraft carrier was the ARA Independencia,which entered Argentine service in 1958 with an air-group of piston-engine aircraft such as the F4U Corsair, the SNJ-5C Texan and the S2 F-1 Tracker. Though the Argentine Navy operated the F9F Panther and TF-9J Cougar jet aircraft, the carrier, which had been built as the HMS Warrior in 1945, proved unsuitable for the operation of such aircraft though some jets were embarked for service.2 It should be noted that while the Panthers and Cougars saw service in the Argentine rebellion of 1963, the carrier itself seems to have not been involved in any such action.3 The Independencia had a relatively short service life in Argentine service, being relegated to reserve and then decommissioned in 1970 and scrapped in 1971.

    The Minas Gerias

    Not to be outdone by its southern neighbour, Brazil commissioned its first aircraft carrier in 1960. The HMS Vengeance – a sister ship of the HMS Warrior aforementioned – was renamed the NAeL Minas Gerias. This ship had a much longer service-life than its Argentine counterpart, not being decommissioned until 2001. However, unlike the Independencia, the Minas Gerias never operated any high-performance combat aircraft – either piston-engine or jet-powered – for most of its service life. Indeed, its sole fixed wing aircraft – the S-2 Tracker anti-submarine aircraft – was operated by the Brazilian Air Force, while the helicopter assets included four to six ASH-3D Sea Kings, two AS-355 Ecureuils, and three A-332 Super Pumas. This bizarre arrangement was brought about by a Presidential decision in 1965, which limited fixed-wing aviation to the Brazilian Air Force.4 The Minas Gerais underwent several upgrades and modifications while in service, aimed at retaining the vessel’s viability for modern warfare. Upgrades to radars, electronics, engines, and the vessel’s steam catapult prepared the ship for its principal role in re-introducing fixed-wing aviation into the Brazilian Navy. Brazil acquired 20 A-4KU Skyhawks and three TA-4KU trainer aircraft from the Kuwait Air Force for USD 70 million in 1999 and, for the last two years of its service life, the Minas Gerias operated a fully combat-capable air-group.5 The ship was decommissioned in 2001 and scrapped in Alang, India in 2004.

    Compared to the Independencia and the Minas Gerias, South America’s next aircraft carrier had a much more active service life and was the only one of the region’s carrier to become involved in active combat – albeit in a supporting role.

    The 25th de Mayo

    The Argentine Navy’s 25th de Mayo was acquired in 1969 and replaced the ARA Independencia as the country’s sole carrier. Unlike the Minas Gerias, the 25th de Mayo was operated as a fleet carrier from the date of its induction. Bought from the Dutch Navy, where she had served as the Karel Doorman, the 25th de Mayo operated an air-group of A-4Q Skyhawks, S-2 Trackers and helicopters. Attempts to upgrade the catapults of the 25th de Mayo to launch fully laden Dassault Super Etendard aircraft equipped with Exocet missiles were not completed until 1983 and, as such, when the ship faced its baptism of fire during the 1982 Falklands war, it operated a sub-optimal air-group.

    During the Falklands War, the 25th de Mayo was used to provide cover to the initial Argentine invasion, though its air-group was not deployed in action.6 The ship was a priority target for British submarines operating in support of the Royal Navy Task Force assigned to recapture the Falklands with the Swiftsure-class submarine HMS Splendid being tasked to locate and sink the carrier and her escorts. A single attempt was made to launch an air-strike against the British task force but the strike, scheduled for 2nd May 1982, was never carried out, with a number of factors, from the inability of the ageing S-2 Trackers to locate the British ships, to light winds restricting the payload capacity of the A-4Q Skyhawks, playing a part in the decision to abort the strike.7 The sinking of the Brooklyn-class light cruiser ARA General Belgrano led to the Argentine Navy withdrawing its vessels to safe ports and deploying the 25th de Mayo’s aircraft from shore bases from where they carried out multiple strikes against British ships.

    After the war, the carrier underwent a series of upgrades which conferred the ability to operate Super Etendard aircraft but by 1985 the 25th de Mayo was effectively out of service. Attempts to overhaul and return the ship to service foundered due to the high cost of such a process and in 1999 the ship was towed to Alang in India for scrapping.

    The Sao Paulo

    The final carrier to be acquired by a Latin American navy was the NAe Sao Paulo – formerly the French Clemenceau-class ship Foch. Displacing over 30,000 tons fully-laden, the Sao Paulo was larger than any carrier previously operated in the region. Acquired in 2001, the Sao Paulo was plagued by accidents and, despite being nominally in service for 16 years, the ship was used for less than four years, with air assets comprising Skyhawks and Trackers from the decommissioned Minas Gerias.

    On May 17, 2004, the ship experienced an explosion in the steam network of the engine room.8 This led to a refit being undertaken from 2005 onwards, with completion scheduled for 2010. Modifications included the inspection and repair of the steam turbines; maintenance of the surface condensers; retubing of boilers; repair of two high-pressure compressors; revision of the AC electrical generator; purchase of spare parts; maintenance of pumps, valves, and structural items; addition of two API oil-water separators; installation of two water cooling units; upgrade of the chemical oxygen generator; repair and treatment of oil tanks; substitution of the Naval Tactical Data System; installation of a closed-circuit television system; installation of an IFF transponder; installation of a MAGE system for electronic surveillance; flight deck inspection, repair, and painting; upgrade of the Optical Landing System processing unit; and revision of the aircraft catapults.9

    Sea trials of the upgraded ship began in 2010 with the ship scheduled to rejoin the fleet in late 2013. However, fate dealt the vessel an extremely unkind hand when a second fire ravaged the vessel in 2012.10 The vessel once again required major repairs, which remained incomplete when the decision was made on February 14, 2017 to deactivate and thereafter decommission the ship by 2020. While it is unclear how much money Brazil has lavished on the ship – purchase price, refits, modernization, and air-group included – the Sao Paulo has had a very limited service life and likely took funds away from the rest of Brazil’s surface fleet.

    Conclusion

    The service histories of aircraft carriers in Latin America are most unimpressive. While it can be accepted that Brazil saw no major combat in the post-World War II period, the limited capabilities of the Minas Gerias and the exceptionally short service life of the Sao Paulo must call into question the wisdom of the investment made in these vessels. In the case of Argentina, the Independencia and the 25th de Mayo were more capable vessels but the latter was not optimally used in 1982 when it could have had an impact on the outcome of the conflict had it been aggressively deployed. Much like the South American Dreadnoughts before them, Argentine and Brazilian aircraft carriers proved to be expensive prestige projects that proved ineffective in combat.

    It is interesting to note that there was no inherent defect in the design of the carriers or their potential – the Foch served the French with distinction (seeing combat in Lebanon and Serbia), while a sister ship of the Independencia and the Minas Gerias – the INS Vikrant – proved itself in combat in 1971 and, re-equipped with BAe Sea Harriers, served the Indian Navy until 1997.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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