Brazil Plans To Sink Its Asbestos-Riddled Aircraft Carrier In The Atlantic

The former Brazilian aircraft carrier Sao Paulo could meet its final fate at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after it was discovered that its condition may be too poor for it to make the transit to a scrapyard and following its being refused entry to ports in Turkey and Brazil. The 870-foot carrier, which had served the French Navy as Foch prior to its transfer to Brazil in 2000, still contains a considerable quantity of harmful asbestos, leading to concerns about the new plans from the country’s environment minister, among others.

The proposal to sink the former Sao Paulo in the Atlantic has been reported recently in the Brazilian media. According to these accounts, the vessel was under tow 20 nautical miles from Suape, one of Brazil’s main ports, in Pernambuco, in the northeast of the country, as of January 13, when a technical inspection took place. Experts determined that the warship was in a worse condition than expected, including “a new breach in the vessel, an increase in the flooding level, and corrosion compared to the inspection conducted four months earlier.”

Brazilian Navy AF-1 Skyhawk jets aboard the carrier Sao Paulo during happier times. Brazilian Navy

While a final decision on the fate of Sao Paulo has reportedly not been made, it appears that the government of newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva favors sinking it, due to the advanced state of deterioration. What is more, the damage to the vessel means that its hull is now no longer safe for navigation in the open sea, greatly reducing the options for what can be done with it next.

The original plan involved towing the carrier to Turkey, where it would be reduced to scrap by Sok Denizcilik Ticaret, one of that country’s major ship dismantling and recycling companies. The former Sao Paulo was sold to the company by the Brazilian Navy last year but in August was forced to turn around after the Turkish government revoked permission for it to enter its waters amid protests about the potential asbestos hazard. The Turkish company appears to have given up hope of securing the vessel.

Turkish opposition political parties, labor unions, and non-governmental organizations hold a mass rally against the dismantling of Brazilian aircraft carrier Sao Paulo, in Aliaga district in Izmir, Turkey, on August 4, 2022. Berkcan Zengin/GocherImagery/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The warship has been in limbo since September, when it arrived back in Brazilian waters, with a string of local ports also denying it access.

This has introduced the possibility of sinking the carrier at sea, using “a series of explosions to open holes in the hull,” according to media accounts. It’s unclear if the sinking would be done using explosive charges attached to the vessel or if the Brazilian Navy might undertake a sinking exercise, or SINKEX. These kinds of exercises involve weapon systems being used for real, from planning the strike to the missile or torpedo being launched, providing valuable training experience for the crews involved and proving that the weapons are capable of destroying real-world targets. They also act as test and validation exercises of weaponry.

A Brazilian Navy H225M helicopter conducts a SINKEX using the Exocet anti-ship missile:

Whatever method is used to sink the aircraft carrier, it looks as if the asbestos onboard will continue to be a controversial issue. Marina Silva, Brazil’s minister for environment, is so far perhaps the most prominent figure opposing the sinking, according to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.

Back in the 1990s, there was even more asbestos in the warship, but around 55 tons were removed from the ship, according to the Brazilian Navy. The remaining asbestos is now reportedly found in the walls of the vessel, where it provided thermal and acoustic insulation — the latter a requirement of the fast jet movements on the deck above.

The situation is made more complicated by the fact that the decision on the fate of the aircraft carrier rests exclusively with the Navy. At the same time, the da Silva government is thought to be unwilling to get into a dispute with the armed forces, in general, as it continues investigations into members of the military that took part in the attack on the Brazilian Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court early last month.

Soldiers on patrol in Brasilia on January 9, 2023, a day after supporters of the far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro invaded the Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court. Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images

All told, the latest development is a sad end to the former Sao Paulo, once the pride of the Brazilian Navy’s fleet, but always of dubious operational value.

Back in September 2019, we reported on how the Brazilian Ministry of Defense had begun the process of auctioning off the retired aircraft carrier, having formally decided to decommission the flattop two years previously.

Originally commissioned in the French Navy as the Foch in 1963, the warship was the second of two Clemenceau class aircraft carriers and remained in service in France until 2000. Brazil purchased the ship that same year for the price of just $12 million, using it to replace the previous Minas Gerais, a British-built Colossus class carrier that the Brazilian Navy retired in 2001. At the time of Sao Paulo’s retirement, there were only two other countries in the world, the United States and France, still operating catapult-assisted takeoff and barrier-assisted recovery (CATOBARconfigured aircraft carriers.

Members of the Brazilian community of Brest, France, watch as the former French Navy aircraft carrier Foch, now renamed Sao Paulo, leaves the military port on February 1, 2001, bound for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo by EMMANUEL PAIN/AFP via Getty Images

Ultimately, despite the undoubted prestige of operating a CATOBAR carrier, the Sao Paulo did not live up to expectations and prior to its decommissioning it had been largely inactive for more than a decade. Prior to that, an explosion in the steam catapult system in 2004 killed one sailor and required a major overhaul that spanned between 2005 and 2010.

A fatal fire followed in 2012, demanding more upgrades and further reducing its time at sea. Indeed, the Sao Paulo had spent only 206 days at sea under a Brazilian flag at the time it was retired.

AF-1 Skyhawks and Sea King helicopters on the deck of the Sao Paulo in 2004. Brazilian Navy

The retirement of Sao Paulo left the fate of the Brazilian Navy’s AF-1 Skyhawk carrier-based combat jets in limbo. However, work has continued to upgrade these aircraft to ensure they remain viable, albeit now operating from a land base, at São Pedro da Aldeia.

In April last year, Embraer completed the modernization contract for the Skyhawks, with the handover of the final aircraft. In all, five single-seaters and a pair of two-seaters were brought up to AF-1B and AF-1C standards, respectively, these numbers having been trimmed following the decision to withdraw the Sao Paulo. Now that Saab Gripen E/F fighter jets are joining the Brazilian Air Force, retaining a larger Skyhawk fleet is also less important.

The seven upgraded Skyhawks have received airframe and engine overhauls, a new Elta Systems EL/M-2032 multi-mode radar, a glass cockpit with hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls, and various other improvements. This should keep them in service for around another decade.

Although there was talk of Brazil potentially introducing an entirely new aircraft carrier, as well as acquiring a navalized variant of the Saab Gripen to replace the Skyhawks, these plans have been abandoned for now. Instead, Brazil acquired the ex-HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier, from the United Kingdom in 2018 for approximately $115 million. Now known as the Atlantico, this warship is restricted to rotary-wing operations only.

The former HMS Ocean, now serving the Brazilian Navy as the Atlantico. Brazilian Navy

All in all, the protracted and costly efforts to keep Sao Paulo in service to start with, followed by the problematic issue of disposing of it now that it’s no longer wanted, speak to the wider challenges of operating an aircraft carrier of any kind. As it stands, whether this warship ends up on the bottom of the Atlantic, or if a way is found to dismantle it more safely somewhere else, it’s likely to be the last fixed-wing carrier operated in Brazil, or anywhere in South America, for a long time if not ever.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.