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Today we take you to a construction site that is both monumental and unique. We are off to Itaguaí, 70km south-west of Rio de Janeiro to report progress on the most comprehensive naval technology transfer programme to date. It is here that Brazil will launch its next-generation submarines from a brand spanking new submarine shipyard and naval base that will be truly impressive.


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The work site and the future ECB shipyard and naval base at Itaguaí (© : Naval Group) 


The story begins with the signing of a strategic cooperation agreement between France and Brazil in 2008, followed, in 2010, by a series of contracts worth almost €7 billion, between Naval Group (known until June this year as DCNS) and its Brazilian partner Odebrecht.

The Prosub programme calls for the construction, under a technology transfer programme, of four Scorpene-based diesel-electric submarines, dubbed type S-BR, and French assistance with the development of the non-nuclear portions of Brazil’s first nuclear-powered submarine (SN-BR). Naval Group is also helping with the design and delivery of equipment for the new shipyard and the naval base where maintenance will be performed.


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A Scorpene submarine belonging to the Royal Malaysian Navy (© : Mer et Marine - Jean-Louis Venne) 

Sovereign submarine capability

“We seek to expand our submarine force because we need modern, high-performance weapons to protect our vast maritime domain. Our coastline is 8,500km in length and our EEZ covers 4.5 million square kilometres. The sea holds 90% of our hydrocarbon resources and is the gateway for 95% of our external trade. The protection of our maritime domain is crucial both in itself and because its resources are coveted by many. The world is, moreover, unstable and no one knows what the coming 50 or 100 years might bring. Through the Prosub programme and the acquisition of the technologies needed to design and build conventional submarines while at the same time developing a home-grown nuclear propulsion capability, Brazil has, for the first time, adopted a national defence and sovereignty policy,” says Fleet Admiral Gilberto Max Roffé Hirschfeld, General Coordinator of the Submarine Development Programme.


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Fleet Admiral Gilberto Max Roffé Hirschfeld (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

Sepetiba Bay, from clean slate to submarine complex

Itaguaí Construções Navais (59% Odebrecht, 41% NG) is a joint company set up by prime contractor Odebrecht and Naval Group to build Brazil’s next-generation submarines. Work on the Sepetiba Bay shipyard and naval base and the associated infrastructure began in 2010.

The complex incorporates the one and only major existing facility in the vicinity, namely the state-owned Nuclep heavy engineering plant that produced the pressure hulls for the Navy’s German-designed Type 209 submarines built under a technology transfer programme and commissioned between 1994 and 2005.

With the exception of the Nuclep plant, the rest of the complex had to be designed and built from scratch, beginning with colossal earthworks. Construction work has involved around 600 Brazilian companies and mobilised up to 2000 people on site at a time. Taking into account indirect jobs, the number of people involved is estimated at 20,000.


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On either side of a mountain

The complex, also known as the EBN naval base and shipyard, comprises a number of facilities on either side of a mountain on Sepetiba Bay. The first new facility was the UFEM engineering plant commissioned in 2013 and located alongside the Nuclep plant that produces pressure hull sections. In addition to building so-called non-strength structures, the vast UFEM plant pre-outfits hull sections and installs a range of equipment.


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The UFEM plant (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

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Hull sections for an S-BR boat in the UFEM plant (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 




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Hull sections for an S-BR boat in the UFEM plant (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

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Hull sections for an S-BR boat in the UFEM plant​​​​​​​ (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

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Hull sections for an S-BR boat in the UFEM plant​​​​​​​ (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

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Once pre-outfitted, each of the four hull sections making up an S-BR submarine is transferred to the ESC assembly hall, the biggest building at the EBN complex. The ESC assembly hall is on the water’s edge on the other side of the mountain from the UFEM plant. The two are linked by a 3.5km road that includes a 703m tunnel through the mountain.


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The tunnel linking the northern and southern portions of the ECB complex​​​​​​​ (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) 

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(© : Naval Group) 




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The ESC assembly hall (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​


The 5,200-sq.m ESC assembly hall has just been completed. The interior is 160m long and 33m wide, with a ceiling height of 52m, and big enough to accommodate two submarines at once. Like the Lauboeuf hall at Naval Group’s Cherbourg shipyard, the ESC hall has a Syncrolift shiplift to launch and recover submarines. Rated at 8000t, the Syncrolift is sized to accommodate Brazil’s planned nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, which will be significantly larger than the S-BR type.


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Construction work adjacent to the ESC assembly hall (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) ​​​​​​​

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(© : Victor M.S. Barreira) ​​​​​​​

First the yard, then the base

Although the ESC assembly hall is now complete, much of the complex remains a vast worksite. Bear in mind, however, that just six years ago, there was nothing here except a beach and luxuriant vegetation from mountain top to sand. The dredging and earthworks have been on a massive scale, including the shifting of 300,000 cubic metres of earth and rock, much of it being used to extend the land into Sepetiba Bay.

In parallel with on-going building work alongside the ESC hall, a new phase of operations is underway at the naval base, namely a pair of 140m-long covered drydocks that have still to be dug. These are sized to accommodate Brazil’s planned SSNs when they come in for major overhauls.

A vast, partially covered apron will also be built alongside the ESC hall for dry maintenance work on S-BR boats after they have been lifted out of the water by the Syncrolift.


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Artist’s impression of the ECB complex at Itaguaí​​​​​​​ (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

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A model of the ESC assembly hall and the planned naval base (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) ​​​​​​​

Built to strict seismic standards

Submarine berths will be provided at a 280-m-long quay protected by a seawall. All infrastructure at the complex will be built to strict seismic standards and at least 5m above sea level to withstand a tsunami like that which caused the Fukushima disaster. This is particularly important given that, as the homeport for the country’s SSNs, the complex will include facilities to store and handle radioactive materials for reactor refuelling.

Covering an area of 48.7 hectares and scheduled for completion in 2020 (with the exception of the SSN drydocks), the southern portion of the complex will be organised around the ESC assembly hall. The drydocks will be completed later as part of the SSN programme under the sole responsibility of the Brazilians.

Another key facility also under construction is the simulator building where Brazilian submariners will receive their training. This area will function as a fully fledged school. It will be equipped with a range of simulators designed by Naval Group for all levels of crew training and qualification testing.


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Platform management, safety/diving and propulsion simulator​​​​​​​ (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

65% complete

Covering 10.3ha, the North Area at the tunnel entrance on the other side of the mountain is currently being used as the site support base. Later, it will feature a radiological decontamination centre, an environmental test laboratory, administrative buildings, and barracks for a specialised chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) hazard battalion.

Apart from the nuclear facilities, the complex is now 65% complete. The cost of the building works and infrastructure is estimated at more than €330 million.


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Artist’s impression of the ECB complex at Itaguaí​​​​​​​ (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

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Artist’s impression of the ECB complex at Itaguaí​​​​​​​ (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

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Artist’s impression of the ECB complex at Itaguaí​​​​​​​ (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

Delays due to budgetary restrictions

Compared to the original timetable, the programme is now two years’ behind schedule. According to naval personnel and contractor executives, the main reason is budgetary restrictions. Following the steep decline in the price of oil, one of the country’s main resources, Brazil was forced to cut back on government spending, military programmes being among the most affected. The Navy managed to preserve the Prosub programme by rescheduling other projects and by spreading Prosub spending over a longer period. This resulted in an overall delay of two years and corresponding slippage in every aspect of this vast and complex programme.

Parts of the programme are, however, under investigation as part of the massive corruption scandal involving Odebrecht, one of Brazil’s leading industrial groups, that has shaken the country since 2014. Insofar as the work at Itaguaí is concerned, the investigations have focused on the infrastructure contracts under the prime contractorship of construction giant Odebrecht. To date, Naval Group has not been the object of any specific allegations. The Group has, furthermore, issued assurances that it is “in no way involved” and that it “scrupulously respects the rules of international law”.

Prosub, the Navy’s top priority

While the Brazilian side assures that the delays are due primarily to budgetary restrictions and not to the cases under investigation, the Prosub programme continues to move forward. “The completion of the new submarine construction programme is our top priority,” says a Brazilian Navy officer. “Ninety-five percent of the funding for the shipyard and naval base has been allocated,” says a COGESN executive, COGESN being the Brazilian entity set up to coordinate the programme.

First section of S-BR1 transferred to assembly hall

Turning to the S-BR submarines, the work continues at a pace dictated by that on the infrastructure. Indeed, the S-BR programme has now entered a crucial phase. The first section of S-BR1, to be named Riachuelo, will be transferred to the assembly hall over the coming weeks. There, it will be mated with the other main hull sections. All four sections are undergoing pre-outfitting in the UFEM plant.


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Training Brazilian welders at the Cherbourg shipyard (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

Comprehensive training programme

The forward half of S-BR1, comprising sections 3 and 4, was produced at Naval Group’s Cherbourg shipyard as a training exercise for the first Brazilian production teams now working at Itaguaí. “As part of the technology transfer, we have trained over 250 Brazilians, from welders to engineers. Working in Cherbourg on sections 3 and 4, the Brazilian welders, shapers, pipefitters and electricians received advanced training alongside their French colleagues. They then returned to Brazil to pass on their learning to local recruits at the Itaguaí welding school set up by Naval Group for the Prosub programme. A number of Cherbourg-based instructors also went to Brazil to oversee training activities,” says Eric Berthelot, CEO of Naval Group’s Brazilian subsidiary.


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Eric Berthelot, CEO of Naval Group’s Brazilian subsidiary​​​​​​​ (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau) ​​​​​​​

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Forward half of S-BR1 built at the Cherbourg shipyard (© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​


The technology transfer components of the programme, the most extensive and comprehensive in the recent history of international naval contracts, are far from over and will, in fact, run for many years to come in both Brazil and France. In addition to Brazilian Navy personnel, employees of dozens of local companies have worked or will work at NG shipyards and its contractors’ facilities to learn how to manufacture, assemble and maintain submarine equipment from weapon launch tubes and handling systems (those for S-BR1 were produced at NG’s Ruelle centre), to masts and periscopes, and the propulsion and combat systems. A significant proportion of S-BR equipment will be produced locally. “The aim is to raise the skills of Brazilian companies with a view to independent sourcing for future programmes. This involves in-depth discussions with the French side on the level of technology transfer needed to achieve independence with regard to key systems, subsystems and equipment,” says Fleet Admiral Gilberto Max Roffé Hirschfeld. Once Brazilian companies have acquired the necessary skills, they can qualify to produce parts then, in stages, assemble subsystems and systems. Later still, they will be able to qualify as suppliers of a full range of products and services, up to and including system commissioning and maintenance. This TT programme will also enable Brazilian companies to make design changes and develop new versions of these products for their own boats.

S-BR1 launch date: late 2018

Shipyard operator ICN (Itaguaí Construções Navais) has come a long way since it received the forward half of S-BR1 from Cherbourg in May 2013. Working as the Navy’s on-site representative, ICN, which now employs 1,600 people, receives hull sections from the Nuclep plant, produces hull components and integrates onboard equipment.

While the original timetable listed S-BR1 for launch in January 2016, this has now slipped to the second half of 2018. The Riachuelo will then spend two years undergoing quayside tests then sea trials with a view to delivery to the Brazilian Navy in around 2020. The Humaitá, S-BR2, is now scheduled for launch in September 2020 (instead of August 2017). The hull sections for S-BR2 are already at the UFEM plant. The Tonelero and the Angostura, S-BR3 and S-BR4 respectively, are scheduled for launch in December 2020 and December 2022 (instead of February 2019 and July 2020). The Angostura is slated for delivery in December 2023.


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Bigger than Scorpenes

With a length of 71.6m and a surface displacement of 1870t — compared with 66.4m and 1700t for the baseline version — the S-BR boats are bigger than the Scorpenes delivered to Chile and Malaysia (two each) or the six under construction in India. The Brazilian Navy chose to extend the hull in order to provide increased storage capacity for fuel, food and supplies, thereby increasing endurance, a key requirement given the extent of Brazil’s territorial waters.

The S-BR boats will carry a crew of 45 and feature six 533-mm launch tubes firing either heavyweight torpedoes or anti-ship missiles. The torpedo store will hold 12 rounds. Brazil has chosen the Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile and France’s new-generation F21 heavyweight torpedo, making it the first export customer for this item. These highly versatile ocean patrol submarines are designed for a full range of missions, including anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, special operations and intelligence gathering.


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(© : Naval Group) ​​​​​​​

Ultimate aim, an SSN

The EBN naval base and shipyard will also build Brazil’s first SSN. The project was first conceived in the 1980s. Over the coming decade, the Prosub programme will, at last, bring the idea to fruition. In Brazil, the SN-BR is the declared ultimate aim of the Prosub programme launched in 2009.

French cooperation is, however, confined to the non-nuclear parts of the SN-BR programme, or, to be more precise, the platform, but not the nuclear powerplant section. Also, whereas the Scorpene and its Brazilian variant (i.e. the S-BR boats) were designed by Naval Group, the SN-BR is being wholly designed by Brazilians. One of the main aims of the S-BR programme is to give Brazil the know-how and industrial capabilities to build submarines while the SSN part of the Prosub programme aims to give Brazilian engineers the expertise to design SSNs. To this end, a submarine design school was set up at NG’s Lorient shipyard. Brazilian engineers attended the school for two years, before moving back to the Navy’s São Paulo design bureau earlier this year to work on the SN-BR programme.


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Keel laying slated for 2020

Following the SN-BR feasibility studies begun in 2012, the Brazilians worked on the preliminary design from August 2013 to January 2017. The next phase, the detailed design studies, is scheduled to begin in July 2018. The design team, currently comprising some 200 people, continues to recruit and is expected to grow to three times the current head count. If all goes well, the Brazilian Navy hopes to lay the keel for the SN-BR boat in early 2020, to launch it in late 2027 and to deliver it by around 2030. The official timetable may, of course, slip in the event of either cost overruns or complications due to the programme’s inherent complexity.


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Draft design concept for planned Brazilian SSN (© Marinha do Brasil) 

The challenges of nuclear propulsion

For Fleet Admiral Gilberto Max Roffé Hirschfeld, “the biggest challenge of the SN-BR programme is clearly the nuclear propulsion as this is the only area for which we do not have the benefit of a technology transfer. The propulsion system is thus our sole responsibility. This means that we must independently develop the relevant advanced technologies while ensuring maximum safety since nuclear engineering risks must be kept as close as possible to zero. Ultimately, we aim to achieve complete sovereignty in this field.”

To design the SN-BR reactor, the Brazilians are leveraging expertise acquired operating civil nuclear power stations. The challenge is nevertheless enormous given that shipboard reactors must meet extremely demanding constraints, particularly regarding size, weight, output and safety. In designing an SSN, the space occupied by the reactor section typically governs the size of the submarine. The design team is based in São Paulo where it has dedicated facilities and direct access to a land-based prototype of the SN-BR reactor. The design will be tailored to match the prototype’s actual output. The preliminary design calls for a boat 107m in length with a displacement of 6000t.

Home-grown CMS

The SN-BR will carry heavyweight torpedoes, mines and anti-ship missiles, with the possible addition of cruise missiles. All weapon systems will be coordinated by a home-grown combat management system. Here too, the Brazilians will draw on Naval Group’s comprehensive technology transfer programme on the Subtics CMS equipping the S-BR boats. This TT effort includes the training of Brazilian engineers in CMS design, development, production and integration.

Original by Vincent Groizeleau, translated and adapted by Steve Dyson


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