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Portugal Table of Contents


Air Force

Although the Portuguese air force did not become an independent service branch until 1952, it has existed since 1912. Portuguese pilots flew missions in World War I and Portuguese aircraft were involved in the Spanish Civil War. The air force played a major role in the colonial wars, attacking guerrilla raiding parties, supporting ground troops, and performing reconnaissance, transport, and medical evacuation missions. During this period, its strength increased from about 12,500 in 1962 to a peak of 21,000 in 1973. After the Revolution of 1974 and the withdrawal from Africa, air force strength shrank as low as 8,000, but it was at a level of 13,400 in 1991. This total included 4,900 conscripts whose service obligation was sixteen months, as well as 2,300 airborne troops who were scheduled to be shifted to army command. The air force's sixteen squadrons operated from seven principal bases, including six in continental Portugal and Lajes in the Azores. One battalion of the airborne brigade was at the Monsanto Air Base, one battalion was at Aveiro, and the unit's training center was at Tancos.

The air force had a reputation as a well-trained, dynamically led, and disciplined service. Its aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities at Alverca were considered to be excellent. Nevertheless, it has not had a clearly-defined mission since the end of the African wars, and its capabilities were limited by the lack of up-to-date combat aircraft. With the exception of ten Alpha Jets obtained from France and Germany in the early 1990s, the air force was largely dependent on the transfer of obsolete aircraft from surplus stocks of other NATO members.

The backbone of the air forces was composed of two squadrons of A-7P Corsairs received under the United States military assistance program between 1982 and 1985 (see table 14, Appendix). The air force had previously been dependent on Fiat G91s in the attack role. Deliveries of these aircraft from the German air force had begun in 1965-66 as partial reimbursement for German use of the Beja Air Base for training purposes. Portugal had no planes designed primarily for air defense, but both the A-7Ps and the Fiat G-91s were equipped with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, providing them with the means to perform a secondary air defense role.

A result of the 1989 review of the Lajes Air Base agreement was the delivery of seventeen F-16A fighters and three F-16Bs (training versions) from the United States beginning in 1994. Although these were earlier models of the highly regarded F-16 series, the introduction of these aircraft would represent a significant upgrading of the Portuguese air defense capabilities. The F16s would operate from Monte Real Air Base and from two forward bases in Madeira and the Azores. As part of the same agreement, Portugal was scheduled to receive a battery of Hawk SAMs and associated radar to boost its air defenses.

In 1988 the air force acquired six Lockheed P-3B Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft that had previously been in service in the Australian air force. After modernization in Portugal by the addition of newer radar and navigation systems, acoustic sensors, and armaments, the aircraft entered service in 1990. Operating from Montijo Air Base, the aircraft provided the air force with a patrol capability against submarines within the sea space linking Portugal with the Azores and Madeira. For reasons of economy, however, few patrol missions were being flown.

The air force also had in its inventory C-130H Hercules transport aircraft intended to provide partial airlift for the First Composite Brigade earmarked for NATO, as well as Spanishbuilt CASA C-212 Aviocar light transports, some of which were fitted for additional maritime surveillance, weather reconnaissance, and survey missions. Two of the C-130s were scheduled to be stretched to increase their load capacities, and an additional stretched C-130 was to be acquired. No combat helicopters were included in the air force inventory of aging French-built Alouettes and Pumas, the survivors of a considerable fleet of helicopters used during the wars in Africa. Under the 1989 Azores review, the United States was committed to supply fifty-seven combat, antisubmarine, and transport helicopters.

A major component of the air force modernization plan was the introduction of an air command and control system for the planning, tasking, and execution of air operations, including coordination with ground and naval forces. The system would be linked to the Spanish, French, and NATO air defense systems. Although NATO had approved a large share of the funding, a reassessment was underway in light of the dramatic changes in the European security situation.

The Air Force Academy, a four-year institution, was located at Sintra near Lisbon. Elementary pilot training for cadets was conducted on Aerospatiale Epsilons, eighteen of which were acquired from France in 1989 for assembly in Portugal. Jet basic training followed on Cessna T-37Cs, and advanced training on Alpha Jets or Northrup T-38A Talons. Additional officer training, carried out at the Air College, consisted of a basic command course for lieutenants, a command and staff course for captains, and the air war course for colonels.

The air force faced major problems arising from career dissatisfaction among its highly trained personnel. Pilots were requesting permission for transfer to the reserves, indefinite leave, or permanent discharge. As of the early 1990s, the pilot shortfall was estimated at about 30 percent. The principal reasons were economic. Even with flight pay, officers earned much less than commercial pilots. Air force pilots also complained that they did not have sufficient opportunity to develop and hone their skills. Annual flying times for pilots and crews were reportedly well below the NATO-recommended minima owing to budgetary and fuel restrictions and the shortage of serviceable aircraft.

Data as of January 1993

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Portugal Table of Contents