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Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
    << Back to Portugal National Security

    Historically, Portugal has had two essential security objectives: the protection of its colonial empire, and the maintenance of its status as a distinctive national entity on the Iberian Peninsula. The nation's geographic position--a band of territory on the Atlantic coast, isolated from the main powers of Europe--has always been central to its strategic thinking. Portugal has never been strong enough to defend itself without assistance, but it had a long tradition of resistance to the presence of foreign troops on its soil. Accordingly, it has followed a policy of aligning itself with the leading naval power of the time. Its alliance with Britain, first established by the 1386 Treaty of Windsor, has been periodically reaffirmed until the twentieth century. After World War II and the creation of NATO, a close relationship with the United States came to be regarded as essential to preserving the country's overseas possessions. The nation's territorial integrity has not been even remotely threatened since the Napoleonic period, nor have immediate concerns of national security been the most compelling factors in military planning or the decision to join NATO. Rather, the country's participation in NATO until the mid-1970s was primarily aimed at winning political and military support for its colonial policies in Africa.

    Portugal made only a marginal contribution to NATO during the Salazar and Caetano eras, and its involvement in Africa alienated it from the other members of the alliance. However, the prevailing Portuguese attitude after 1974 was favorable to greater Portuguese activity in NATO and the defense of the West, based on recognition of the dangers represented by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Public opinion polls in Portugal reflected a decidedly pro-Atlantic, pro-NATO sentiment, especially when compared with that of other countries in NATO's southern tier, such as Spain and Greece. The events of 1974-75, when Portuguese communists gained control of important functions of the state and deeply infiltrated the military, solidified the majority perception that the nation's interests lay in association with the West European community and NATO. The upheavals of 1974-75, together with Moscow's role in supporting the African liberation movements, inclined the Portuguese military leaders to regard the Soviet Union as a hostile power against which the country must constantly remain vigilant.

    In geostrategic terms, the country is perceived as a narrow strip along the Atlantic flank of the Iberian Peninsula that, together with the archipelagoes of Madeira and Azores, forms the Portuguese "strategic triangle." It occupies an intermediate position between the Atlantic and Mediterranean areas and between Europe and Africa. The strategic triangle is crossed by important sea and air lines of communication, linking North America and the east coast of South America to Europe, southern Africa to Europe, and the Mediterranean lands to Northern Europe. In the event of an East-West confrontation, the defense of these waters would be imperative for reinforcing the European southern flank. The Portuguese territories and waters would also be critical to control over the Straits of Gibraltar. The Lajes Air Base in the Azores, in addition to its advanced position for air resupply, is ideal for surveillance of the Atlantic and the conduct of antisubmarine warfare. As stated by United States Secretary of State George Shultz in 1984, "...the Azores base is pivotal if the United States is to react effectively to military challenges in Europe or to threats to Western security outside NATO."

    The military doctrine incorporated in the Portuguese strategic concept emphasized the role of air and naval components to protect communications linking the Azores, Madeira, and the Portuguese mainland. This task always necessitated the employment of naval vessels equipped for antisubmarine warfare and the use of the "angles" of the strategic triangle as bases for maritime patrol and interceptor aircraft. Another part of Portuguese strategic thinking stressed the growing ability of the North African countries--Morocco, Algeria, and Libya--to engage in modern military operations. Regional or religious conflicts in the area or the establishment of Soviet basing privileges would affect NATO's lines of communications and Portugal's responsibilities. Lisbon's efforts to foster good relations with the North African countries, especially Morocco, had as one object, therefore, the reduction of such risks.

    Recognizing that with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central Europe and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact the military threat to Europe had subsided, the Portuguese political leadership became increasingly reluctant to assume financial and personnel commitments needed to carry out NATO missions. As of early 1992, defense strategy was clearly at a transitional stage. According to official statements, the armed forces would continue to be scaled down in areas of secondary importance, while efforts would be made to continue modernization and to achieve high operational efficiency in designated areas, notably air defense, naval patrols, and rapid reinforcement capability at any point of the national territory. The break-up of the Warsaw Pact had not, according to the official view, caused all threats to disappear. There was no guarantee that regional crises, low-intensity conflicts, and religious fundamentalism would not destabilize nations and entire regions. Prime Minister AnĂ­bal Cavaco Silva pointed out in May 1990 that the NATO alliance had served peace for more than forty years over a vast territory. It would be rash, he said, for the West to disarm unilaterally and hurriedly and for the existing balance in Europe to be jeopardized. Similarly, Portugal was reluctant to assign security responsibilities to the European Community (EC--see Glossary) that would diminish the standing of NATO as the primary instrument of collective self-defense.

    During the period in late 1990 leading up to the Persian Gulf conflict, Portuguese political leaders supported the United Nation (UN) resolution and expressed strong solidarity with the country's allies. In addition to quickly approving transit facilities in the Azores and on the mainland, Portugal provided medical assistance teams and a transport plane for evacuating refugees. A cargo vessel was assigned to support the movement of British forces to the Persian Gulf, and Portuguese vessels joined NATO standby forces in the Mediterranean. However, the government announced that Portugal would not contribute ships or troop units to take a direct part in the conflict, a decision reportedly received with discontent by senior military officers.

    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 STRATEGIC CONCEPTS UNDERLYING THE PORTUGUESE DEFENSE POSTURE information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Portugal STRATEGIC CONCEPTS UNDERLYING THE PORTUGUESE DEFENSE POSTURE should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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