Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
Portugal has a strong maritime tradition dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when explorers inspired by Prince Henry the Navigator reached Madeira, the Azores, and the west coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed on to establish the sea route to India. Although traditionally the service with the greatest prestige, the navy declined during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a period in the 1950s, this trend was reversed when modern frigates, corvettes, minesweepers, and patrol vessels were acquired through military assistance from the United States. After the Revolution of 1974, the number of operational fighting vessels declined by more than half, from forty to seventeen.
During the colonial wars, the navy was active in efforts to interdict guerrilla movements on rivers, lakes, and coastal waters of Africa. After the withdrawal of the armed forces from Africa, the navy's emphasis shifted to home waters, where its missions have been defined as protecting the sea lanes between the mainland and the islands of the Azores and Madeira, cooperating with the other services in the defense of Portuguese territory, patrolling the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Portugal's coast, and meeting Portugal's NATO responsibilities in the Iberian Atlantic Command (IBERLANT) zone of operations (see Portugal and NATO , this ch.).
The chief of the naval staff (an admiral) was supported by the vice chief of naval staff (a vice admiral), the continental naval commander (also a vice admiral), the Azores naval commander (a rear admiral), the Madeira naval commander (a captain), and the Marine Corps commandant (a captain). The main naval base was at Alfeite near Lisbon, as was the Naval Academy. The continental naval command was at Portimão on the south coast. The commanders in the Azores and Madeira exercised the concurrent role of NATO island commander.
Between the end of the colonial wars in 1974 and 1992, the navy's personnel strength decreased from 19,400 to 15,300. As of early 1992, about 5,000 of the navy's personnel were conscripts serving for sixteen months. Standards of performance and motivation of career NCO personnel were reported to have been affected by the decline. Many NCOs, trained at considerable expense by the navy, had departed for private sector employment. Lack of advancement, wage levels not commensurate with the skills involved, and the diminishing prestige of naval careers were said to be contributing factors. As a result of the flight of technicians, previous training and fitness standards could not be maintained.
The principal combat vessels of the Portuguese navy were four frigates and three submarines of French construction and ten small frigates (sometimes classified as corvettes) built in Spain and Germany. The French frigates and submarines were commissioned in the late 1960s, and the corvettes were commissioned between 1970 and 1975, although they were later modernized by the addition of new communications and electronics gear. The navy also operated a number of coastal patrol and auxiliary vessels (see table 13, Appendix). Three modern MEKO-200 frigates were commissioned in 1991. These ships, built in Germany and financed with the help of seven NATO members, were, at 3,200 tons, much larger than any other vessels in the existing fleet. They were to be armed with torpedoes, Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles, the Sea Sparrow SAM, and advanced sonar and fire-control systems. They would also accommodate two helicopters for antisubmarine operations.
Even with the addition of the MEKO frigates, Portugal had only a limited capability to carry out its IBERLANT responsibilities. The main potential threats were submarines that might interdict the Atlantic sea lanes and mines that could force the closure of ports. The navy's antisubmarine warfare capability, although improving, was still deemed deficient, particularly in view of the lack of air reconnaissance. The lack of minesweepers to operate in the Portugal-Madeira-Azores triangle was a further shortcoming in view of the strategic importance of this zone for European shipping. The navy had plans to replace its submarines and to purchase ocean-going patrol vessels and minesweepers, but it was not clear how they would be financed.
The Marine Corps consisted of 2,500 men, of whom approximately half were conscripts. They were organized into two infantry battalions and one naval police battalion. The marines were trained for small amphibious operations and shore patrol duties. In addition to light arms, their equipment included wheeled armored vehicles, mortars, and landing craft.
Data as of January 1993
NOTE: The information regarding Portugal on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Portugal Navy information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Portugal Navy should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.