Brazil Navy chief says personnel ready despite COVID-19, submarines face technical setback

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FILE PHOTO: A Brazilian navy soldier patrols the Arpoador Beach before carnival festivities in Rio de Janeiro
FILE PHOTO: A Brazilian navy soldier patrols the Arpoador Beach before carnival festivities in Rio de Janeiro

BRASILIA (Reuters) - The readiness of the Brazilian Navy has not been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, despite 8% of personnel catching the virus and 549 people dying of COVID-19, its commander said on Tuesday.

Admiral Ilques Barbosa played down the impact of the virus on the Navy's 80,000 men and women, adding that those who caught it were never all out at the same time. Most of those who died were veterans over the age of 70, he said.

"The rate of infection was very low. It was almost irrelevant," the admiral told foreign reporters in a remote briefing. "Our readiness was never compromised."

Barbosa himself had COVID-19 without symptoms and worked from home.

Separately, Barbosa said the program that aims to deliver a nuclear-powered attack submarine to the Brazilian military by 2029 has been set back by budget and technical issues.

Brazil is building five Scorpene-class submarines in a joint venture with France's Naval Group defense company, formerly known as DCNS S.A., in a 6.7 billion euro (£6.1 billion) program.

The final submarine, still scheduled for 2029, according to Barbosa, will be nuclear-powered, putting Brazil in the club of nations with some form of nuclear-powered strategic submarines: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China and India.

The program was hampered in 2016 by a corruption investigation.

More recently defense budget cuts and technical problems have delayed work, the admiral said. He gave no further details.

The first submarine, the S-40 Riachuelo launched in December 2018, was due to be commissioned by the Navy in September but that will only happen in June next year, the admiral said, adding that it was still undergoing "complex" tests.

The second submarine, the S-42 Tonelero, was due to be delivered next year, but will only be launched to sea in December 2021 and the third vessel a year later, Barbosa said.

(This story has been refiled to correct punctuation in eighth paragraph and creates new 9th paragraph to clarify that admiral did not mention corruption probe)

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)