The Brazilian navy has begun auctioning off its only aircraft carrier. The attempted sale of Sao Paulo leaves the Brazilian fleet with just one aviation vessel, the helicopter carrier Atlantico. And it effectively strands the navy’s small fleet of carrier-compatible Skyhawk fighters.
The 33,000-ton-displacement Sao Paulo has a storied past, as Robert Beckhusen explained in a 2017 story. “Sao Paulo was originally the Foch, a Clemenceau-class carrier which first launched in 1960,” Beckhusen wrote. “During her 40 years in service with the French navy, Foch’s air wings dodged Yemeni MiGs, intervened in the Lebanese civil war and bombed Serbia during the Kosovo conflict.”
France sold Foch to Brazil in 2000, and the renamed Sao Paulo carried out exercises and launched Brazil’s AF-1 Skyhawk attack planes from her flat, catapult-launch deck, similar to U.S. carriers and the Charles de Gaulle, France’s sole remaining fleet carrier.
Brazil paid France US$12 million for the carrier but sank US$100 million more keeping her seaworthy Fires broke out aboard the vessel at least twice, once in 2004 — killing several sailors — and again in 2012. The accidents forced costly repairs and kept the carrier in port for long periods of time.
Sao Paulo was supposed to rejoin the fleet in 2013, but the accidents kept sidelining her. “By the end of 2016, Sao Paulo was still undergoing repairs and there were reports that it might take another decade to get the ship fully operational again.
“By the time the Brazilian navy finally decided to just retire the ship in 2017, it was the world's oldest commissioned aircraft carrier”. “In the better part of two decades that the flattop had flown the Brazilian flag, she had spent just 206 days at sea.”
“That Brazil has even operated carriers, not to mention for decades is all rather weird,” since in “strict military terms, a Brazilian carrier makes little sense … at least right now.”
Brazil’s primary threats do not come from the sea but from land, as Brazil shares its borders with 10 countries, some of which have histories of rebel insurgencies and ongoing troubles with cross-border organized crime groups. One of these countries, Venezuela, is unstable.
But Brazil has also invested in carriers for symbolic and political reasons. Actually, those are the primary reasons. Brazilian military officers and politicians want their country to be important — and important countries have carriers.
By 2017 the political value of the vessel couldn’t justify the cost and danger of keeping her functional. Sao Paulo’s auction leaves the navy’s AF-1 Skyhawks without a carrier to fly from. “The decision to retire the ship has left the future of the AF-1s in limbo”.
As a partial replacement for Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2018 paid US$ 115 million for the Royal Navy’s helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. But the 22,000-ton-displacement Ocean, which the Brazilians renamed Atlantico, cannot support fixed-wing aircraft. It’s unclear what the Brazilian navy plans to do with its Skyhawks, and whether it considers Atlantico sufficiently prestigious to replace Sao Paulo.