The São Paulo is an aircraft carrier that has been in service with the Brazilian navy since 2000. It is named after the state of São Paulo, the largest state in Brazil. It is of the French Clemenceau class of aircraft carriers, and was formerly the French carrier Foch. It was built in 1963.

The São Paulo is what is called a "CATOBAR" (catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery) aircraft carrier, meaning it uses a catapult to launch aircraft, and an arresting wire to help them land. This is in contrast to the more common SVTOL (Short or Vertical Take Off and Landing) aircraft carriers, that carry only helicopters or fixed wing aircraft that are capable of taking off vertically. Although the São Paulo is smaller than the American "supercarriers" of the Nimitz and Gerald Ford classes, it would theoretically be able to handle most of the aircraft that fly on American carriers. Currently, the São Paulo has a squadron of A-4 Skyhawks purchased from Kuwait. Although the A-4 Skyhawk is an older airplane, being of Vietnam War vintage, it is a very sturdy plane and quite capable of combat missions. The São Paulo also can and does carry a variety of helicopters for anti-submarine and patrol purposes. The São Paulo is 266 meters long, 50 meters wide and displaces 32,000 tons, and has a crew of 1300 sailors with around 700 airmen.

There could be more details given as to "what" the São Paulo is, but the "why" is a much more interesting question. What role does an aircraft carrier play in a country's strategic goals? An aircraft carrier is an expensive and complicated piece of equipment, and for that reason very few countries operate them. In fact, Brazil is currently one of only three countries that operates CATOBAR carriers, along with the United States and France. What are some of the possible roles a carrier, and its attendant naval power, could play?

  • As part of a war with a regional rival.
  • As part of a war with a superpower.
  • For anti-piracy patrols.
  • For internal counter-insurgency.
  • For the the prestige of operating an aircraft carrier.
All of these are possible issues for Brazil, and possible uses for an aircraft carrier. However, most of them are either not high priorities, or not suited for an aircraft carrier. Brazil has had little conflicts with its fellow countries in South America in recent decades, and in fact Argentina uses the São Paulo to train pilots in carrier operations. Brazil also has no foreseeable conflicts with North American or European superpowers, and if it did, a single aircraft carrier would not really be of much use. Piracy is a growing concern, and while naval forces can combat piracy, shore based aircraft patrols, or a helicarrier would be a more efficient way to patrol nearby waters. The same logic applies to counter-insurgency or even a full civil war: an aircraft carrier seems like overkill for these purposes. This leads the final answer, prestige, which to me seems like the most obvious answer for why Brazil would want to operate an aircraft carrier. In other words, the main reason Brazil wants to operate an aircraft carrier is to show that they can. And it is significant that Brazil, once a developing nation, now has the technical ability and resources to operate a full aircraft carrier, something that currently neither The United Kingdom, Russia, India or China can do. Of course, there is technical limitations to what Brazil can do with the Sao Paulo, since its conventional propulsion limits its range, and the A-4, while good in a ground attack role, can not be used as an air superiority fighter. But even if the aircraft carrier has some technical limitations, its operation gives training and experience to sailors and aircrews.

Another final note on the presence of an aircraft carrier in the Brazilian navy is how it fits in with other country's (especially the United States) perceptions of Brazil. As I noted while writing about The Chinese Aircraft Carrier Program, there was much alarm and hyperbole from some elements in the United States over the fact that China had acquired an aircraft carrier, even though it was an older STVOL model, and was not functioning. Yet Brazil had been successfully operating a much more sophisticated aircraft carrier for over a decade without causing a hue or cry. I think this is because there is still some stereotypes as the China as a canny, technologically adept country, while Brazil is either comedically or depressingly corrupt and backwards. And yet, the actual technical achievements, at least in terms of naval power, go against these stereotypes.