The Elephants in Brazil

By Claudio Agostini | May 1, 2008


Brazil’s long-time military doctrine focused on territorial defense has gained a new dynamic that is reverberating through all elements of the helicopter industry.

Two major discoveries of ultra- deep oil and gas fields in the Santos Basin off the coast of Sao Paulo state are catapulting Brazil to the ranks of the world’s major hydrocarbon producers. The Tupi and Jupiter fields also promise to elevate the state-owned oil company Petrobras from the world’s 11th to sixth biggest energy company, by some rankings.


To beat these systems one must plan backward from the objective to the starting point.

To protect these finite natural resources, which are vital to fostering Brazil’s social and economic development, the coastal region becomes an obligatory part of the national security and sovereignty agenda.

With no quarrels along its 10,4901-mi (16,885-km) borders with 10 neighboring countries, Brazil’s contemporary threats come not from any recognizable state and military entity but from non-state groups, transnational criminal organizations, proxies, and other groups operating in more complex, ambiguous, and multidimensional terms. The risks are sabotage, terrorism, piracy, and staging and stockpiling illicit drugs and weaponry.

Envisaging the need to protect Brazil’s huge offshore fields, the Defense Ministry launched in September 2007 one of its biggest combined military exercise. Named Albacora (after a local name for tuna), it was under way at Rio de Janeiro’s Macaé Port and its Campos Basin offshore field about two months before the first announced discoveries at Santos Basin.

The Campos Basin is about 540 nm (1000 km) north of Tupi and Jupiter. Those fields lie about 160 nm (300 km) off the coastal city of Santos, which is a natural logistical base for offshore operations, including those of helicopters. A bit more than 60 nm (110 km) south of Rio along the coast is Angra dos Reis, home of Brazil’s nuclear power stations. Petrobras expects Tupi to come on line by 2010 and be at full production in 2013. It is the first of Brazil’s new "elephants," an energy industry term for fields of more than 1 billion barrels.

Petrobras, Brazil’s largest helicopter customer, uses nearly 10 percent of the country’s total fleet of about 1,100 helicopters to support its oil and gas operations.

The 10-day Albacora exercise simulated a conventional war between two countries, and was aimed at maximizing the interoperability and synergy of Brazil’s army, navy, and air force. It tested their joint ability to defeat threats to territorial waters, land and sea routes, perform search and rescue and logistic transports, and defend and re-take offshore installations.

Albacora employed 8,800 men, 250 military vehicles, 19 warships, and 50 aircraft. Half of the aircraft were helicopters: navy Eurocopter HU-14 Super Pumas and UH-12/13 Fennecs/Esquilos, AgustaWestland AH-11A Super Lynx AH 11A, and Sikorsky Aircraft SH-3A/B Sea Kings; army HA1 Fennecs/Esquilo, Eurocopter HM1 Panthers, and air force H-34 Super Pumas and H-50 Esquilos.

Since before the 1990s, Brazil capped annual military spending at about $ 3 billion, or 1.78 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, compared to the region’s average of 1.98 percent GDP. That paid mainly for equipment maintenance and gradual development of the three forces. Starting in 2004, Brazil’s military started to climb. The government recently asked Congress to allocate about $5.6 billion for the 2008 military budget, a 53 percent increase.

Brazil has the largest military helicopter fleet in South America — 210, compared to Colombia’s 157 and Peru’s 109. (Those three represent 75 percent of South America’s fleet.)

The recent visit of Brazil’s defense minister to France and Russia may finally result in the acquisition and technology transfer from EADs Eurocopter, through its Helibras subsidiary in Brazil, for the local assembly and production of the first 50 Cougar helicopters to support army, navy and air Force requirements. It also may bring the Helibras plant at Itajubá in Minas Gerais state to full production of the Panther and its civil version, the Dauphin. This new helicopter plant is to start operations in June, when Helibras celebrates its 30th anniversary. That will create a second aviation pole in Brazil and an export base for Eurocopter, with most of the parts suppliers in the states of São Paulo, Rio, and Minas Gerais.

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