The Strategic Importance Of The Portuguese Atlantic Islands
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
THE STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE OF THE
PORTUGUESE ATLANTIC ISLANDS
The Marine Corps Command and Staff College
LCdr Silverio T. Rodrigues
Portuguese Marine Corps
April 6, 1984
Thesis Sentence: The Portuguese Atlatnic Islands are absolutely vital
to control the Atlantic Ocean and to maintain the
lines of communication of the western countries.
II. The worldwide geopolitical scenario
A. Concepts on seapower
B. The development of the Soviet Navy and the Soviet global strategy
C. The Soviets interests in the South Atlantic
D. Areas of conflict
III. What Western strategy faces the Soviet threat?
IV. The strategic Portuguese land in this geopolitical scenario
C. Portugal's future strategic role
The Strategic Importance of the Portuguese Atlantic Islands
The islands of the North Atlantic, stretching from Greenland near the
North Pole to the Lesser Antilles close to the Equador, have long attracted
the attention of the American government and of private U.S. individuals and
groups: fishermen, merchants, investors, tourists, scientists, and others.
Recently, thanks to the post-World War II cold war between the United
States and the Soviet Union--which has thawed somewhat in recent years--the
various Atlantic islands remain of military and strategic importance to
America today, as leader of the free world. In the case of Greenland,
Iceland, the Azores, Bermuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas, each island or island
group had a sharedexperience during and after World War II: the American
military presence, once directed against the Nazis, was now set up as a
defense against the Communists.
Therefore, speaking of Iceland, Newfoundland, the Azores, and Bermuda
on June 16, 1964, Republican Representative Charles Mathias of Maryland
concluded that "when we consider recorded history these four islands have
always been absolutely vital to mainland North America."1 Thus, in the age
of the intercontinental ballistic missile the pattern of American
involvement around the North Atlantic fringe remains as varied as it was a
century or more ago when clipper vessels and whaling vessels rode its waves.
The Worldwide Geopolitical Scenario
"Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the
trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the
1U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 88th Congress, 2nd
Session, Vol. 110, pt 10, June 16, 1964, p. 13994.
2Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History and
Strategy of Maritime Empires (New York: William Morrow
and Company, Inc., 1974) p. 105.
Command of the sea will continue to be a constant historical maritime
strategy as it has been in the past up to the moment a thermonuclear World
War III breaks out--if it does.
The sea covers 71 percent of the earth's surface; the remaining 29
percent is mostly land mass, generally occupied by human groupings in areas
readily accessible either to the great saltwater oceans or to the many
island fresh waterways--the major lakes and rivers. The seaborne
communications between these settlements have often been a dominant force in
the history of great nations. Thus, command of the sea and inland waterways
has remained a key political and strategic concern of seagoing people
Geography is the major determining factor in any nation's ability to
utilize the sea commercially and to defend its political and economic
integrity from overseas attack. Thus, each nation tends to orient its
political, economic, and military life around the advantages of its
geographical position. History reveals that this orientation has usually
favored either the ocean-maritime element or the continential. No nation
has yet been able to afford the sheer expense of sustaining both a large
army to control its frontiers and a large navy to maintain control of vast
areas of water. In the contemporary period, the twentieth century, the rise
of non-European powers has made the two great oceans, the Atlantic and the
Pacific of equal importance.
Placed in the dominant geographical position relative to rival land
powers, oceanic states such as ancient Athens and Rome, middle age Portugal
and Spain, modern age Great Britain and France, or the contemporary United
States, have been able to emerge as dominant maritime nations. Thus, their
strategies have rested upon their ability to command the sea.
"Command of the seas, as Admiral Mahan so often remarked, was an
exclusive thing; it could not be shared, and was appliable to one nation at
a time."3 Continental powers so limited have had to adopt special measures
or alternatives to compensate for their inherent geographical shortcomings.
As a result, two separate strategic policies recur throughout history as
great maritime and continental powers have confronted one another.
The Development of the Soviet Navy and the Soviet Global Strategy
At the end of World War II and the beginning of what would be called
the cold war, the United States and its western allies had not only a
preponderance of strength in naval force numbers but also an absolute
preponderance in the equally important perception of sea power. However,
since then, the Soviet Navy has slowly grown and now has a greater number of
ships than the American Navy. An additional point is that the fleets of the
major western allies are also shrinking. On the contrary, not only has the
Soviet Navy become quantitatively superior to the American fleet, it has
also changed its quality and types of ships.
The Soviet Union is pressing forward on the high seas with the creation
of an oceanic navy. The ship, not the tank, is the military element to
which the Soviets give priority today. The Soviets have grasped the meaning
of cormmand of the sea. Behind the maritime ambitions of the Kremlin leader-
ship is the realization that confrontation in the East-West conflict is
shifting, ever more strongly from land to sea.
3Clark G. Reynolds, Command of the Sea: The History
and Strategy of Maritime Empires (New York: William
Morrow and Company, Inc., 1974) p. 211.
The immense continental empire--Russia--which covers a sixth of the
world's land area, has with the construction of an oceanic navy broken the
fetters of inland confinement and transformed the claim to be a world power
into direct intervention on every continent. For the first time, their navy
operating on all the oceans gives Soviet powers the means to direct
What is the global strategy of the Soviet Union? We must remember
that, according to Soviet military doctrine, armed forces are a prominent
instrument of policy even in peace, through presence, pressure,
intimidation, and threat. In striving to expand their power, the Soviets no
longer need defeat the enemy on land and the battle no longer need take
place in Central Europe. Consequently, in view of the concentration of
military forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain, an advance of the Red
Army would raise the risk of a third world war.
The NATO alliance can be paralyzed from the sea even without the force
of arms. A lot of people think that the security of Europe is still
identified with a line, the Iron Curtain, which in the case of aggression
must be defended with or without atomic weapons. However, why should the
Russians attack across the Elbe River when a less risky way is open to
achieve their aim by the establishment of hegemony over Western Europe?
The Soviet Union, stretching from the Elbe to the Pacific, is
economically self-sufficient. It needs no Red Fleet to protect its supply
lines. For the West, however, the basic arteries of life run through the
sea. The Mideast crisis in the fall of 1973 gave a glaring example and
opened a new panorama of threats reaching in previously unparalleled
dimensions far beyond the various Mideastern crises into the East-West
Thus, indirectly through the Arab countries, Moscow realized that the
solidarity of the western alliance could be disrupted with economic weapons,
with control, and--if need be--constriction of the sea lanes to weaken and
wear down the western industrial nations and Japan. In combination with the
Soviet fleet, the Arab oil reserves are conceived as a means of pressure to
isolate Western Europe from America, to neutralize and, in the sense of
recognizing the hegemony of the Soviet Union, to "finlandize" it.
The Soviet Interests in the South Atlantic
The past reputation of the South Atlantic as an isolated outpost is
fast disappearing. Major changes in the area include the final withdrawal
of European colonial power, the growth of Soviet interests and presence, and
the emergence of new regional power centers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the North Atlantic, the
region's sea routes carry a major portion of the petroleum needed by the
United States and its NATO allies. Nearly all of the oil from the Persian
Gulf passes around the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic because
supertankers cannot use the Suez Canal. Since they are also too big for the
Panama Canal, oil from Alaska may also be shipped around Cape Horn in the
Soviet naval power in the South Atlantic is steadily increasing. With
more than 3O ships presently stationed in the Indian Ocean, and several
transiting the South Atlantic at almost any given time,4 the Soviet Navy has
clearly marked the South Atlantic as its next major focus for development.
4Robert P. Berman., Soviet Naval Strength and
Deployment (New York: Praeger, 1977) p. 217.
With bases established in Angola, the Soviet Union would have a growing
capability to threaten the blockade of resources vital to western economies,
and thus have the potential in crisis situations to exert influence on the
industrialized economies of the North Atlantic.
The discovery of large oil deposits and other resources along the
Atlantic littoral of Africa and off the coast of Argentina and Brazil would
increase significantly the external competition within this region. Zairian
copper, Gabonese iron and manganese, oil from Cabinda and Nigeria and chrome
and gold from South Africa, raw materials absolutely indispensable for the
industrialized states of the northern hemisphere, are important enough to
change the strategic rules of the contest in the South Atlantic.
However, competition in the South Atlantic will be increased during the
next decade by other factors:
1. There is a rising potential for nationalistic rivalry between local
2. The attempts to resolve racial tensions in southern Africa had
3. Unprecedent diplomatic initiatives by governments in the region
reaching out to one another are a reality.
4. There are possible changes in access to the region including the
routes via the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean, and the Cape of
5. The outcome of the U.N. Laws of the Sea Conference affects the
jurisdictions of regional states over areas up to 200 miles wide on
both sides of the South Atlantic.
6. Geological soundings in the Antartic which reveals the presence of
oil, gas, and manganese with no international mechanism to control
exploitation of the region.
7. There is the present and prospective bankruptcy of numerous small
countries in the region likely to open them to cheaply bought influ-
ence--up to and including hard basing rights for external military
So, in the future, the challenges to western interests--military,
political, and economic will have to be faced, geographically,
throughout the triangle bordered by Africa, Latin America, and the
Areas of Conflict
Anyone who makes predictions about potential conflicts takes a risk.
Certain things can be said, however, about the events during the next
twenty-odd years that are predictable. The question is: will these events
involve the use of sea power?
The Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea are the two regions
of most concern because they have the greatest immediate potential to
involve the two superpowers.
The Atlantic Ocean is the primary geographical area of maritime
interest for the western countries. It is an avenue from the United
States to their allies and trading partners in Europe, and is the
location of the principal and most probable sea-based threat to our
countries. Virtually all of the strategic raw materials imported by
the western countries are shipped through or landed at ports on the
Atlantic Ocean. In addition to the strategic imports, the Atlantic is
the economic seaway which carries about ninety percent of the U. S.
trade in manufactured products with Western Europe.
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On the other hand, as an expanding population forces the world to rely
more heavily upon the sea for food and the exploitation of mineral and
metallic resources of the seas, the Atlantic grounds assume increased
5Instituto Ja Defesa National, Nacao e Defesa
(Lisbon, 1980) p. 125.
There are also a lot of predictions that can be made concerning the
Mediterranean area such as:
1. The rivalry which endures among the Arab nations and the continuing
importance of Middle East oil.
2. Soviet use of Yugoslavian bases at the same time the United States
seems to be losing bases in the Eastern Mediterranean will have an
effect on sixth fleet operations.
3. The Turkish-Greek quarrel with the possibility that the Soviet
Union will intervene on one side or the other.
4. The threat of Eurocommunism in Italy and France could have
devastating effects on the operation of the sixth fleet.
5. With the acquired rights to naval bases and the construction of air
bases on the North African Coast, especially in Algeria and Libya,
the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet would receive the logistic support
and the air cover it has lacked until now.
In a summary, I would say that Soviet naval activity both in the
Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean is designed to outflank Europe by
weakening the position of the Western alliance.
What Western Strategy Faces the Soviet Threat?
At present, western maritime strength and influence are directly
challenged by the unprecedented growth of Soviet sea power. The scope of
this power can be explained by the priority given to the Soviet Navy to
accomplish the four basic naval tasks: strategic strike, sea control,
strategic defense, and interdiction of sea lines of communication.
To do so, the Soviet Union has organized an impressive maritime force
composed of surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. This force continues
to diversify and to improve its capabilities.
As noted above, sea control is the navy's primary wartime mission
within a nation's overall forward defense strategy. Sea control, as defined
by Admiral James L. Holloway is "the engagement and destruction of hostile
aircraft, ships, and submarines at sea...or the deterrence of hostile
actions through the threat of destruction."6
For the past forty-five years naval aircraft has been the primary naval
systems for achieving that destruction. Most of the navy's offensive power
has come from sea-landed aviation. The aircraft carrier, capable of
transiting long distances, enhanced the range of naval aircraft; together,
carrier and aircraft became the navy's dominant offensive system during
World War II.
Recent advances in technology, notably the advent of precision-guided
munitions, have resulted in a new threat to the carrier survivability.
Whereas, carriers previously operated virtually as safe havens, out of range
from the enemy land-based aviation, they now must face not only long-range
bomber threats but also a more widespread threat from cruise missile-equipped
nuclear-powered submarines. The loss of one carrier today would be far more
damaging to the fleet than its loss would have been some years ago; yet, the
loss of that carrier is far more likely today than it would have been then.
In the era of ICBM's, laser beams and neutron bombs, the aircraft
carrier is too vulnerable and too expensive. As we cannot anticipate that
the carrier will not require escort protection in the foreseeable future,
the escort offensive capabilities will remain secondary to their task of
defending the carrier.
Thus, the increasing vulnerability and the growing costs of both
building and protecting the aircraft carriers have led analysts to search
for alternative means of providing the navy with the air power necessary to
6U.S. Congress, Committee on Armed Services, The FY 1978
Posture and Fy 1978 Budget of the United States Navy,
March 7, 1977,
assure the success of its sea-control mission. What alternative means? One
of these alternatives is that of widening the navy's utilization of
However, the first question to be asked is: can land-based air actually
be used for sea control? In my opinion, the possible use of land-based
tactical aviation for sea control might be viewed not only as complementing
the inherent sea control capabilities of the carrier force, but also as
freeing elements of that force for projection of power ashore.
The Soviet submarine fleet is the world's largest. Some analysts have
pointed to the Soviet northern fleet as the greatest threat to America's sea
lanes to its allies. Recent estimates show that by 1985 the total Soviet
submarine force will rise from its present level of 84 nuclear-powered
attack submarines to about 165 SSNS. The northern fleet would claim about
92 of these, with most, if not all of the remainder, in the Pacific fleet.7
Soviet naval aviation provides an important complement to the fleet
mission of denying the sea lanes to the western allies. It includes combat
aircraft, Badger bombers, armed with air-to-surface missiles with ranges of
over 100 miles. Also, the Backfire long-range bombers with a combat radius
between 1,750 and 3,500 nautical miles which are equipped with AS-4 and AS-6
missiles with ranges from 100 miles up to 500 miles. The Soviet surface
fleet is not considered to be as great a threat to the U.S. missions as the
submarine or aviation forces.
In the case of a long war, the convoys and carriers providing
"umbrella" protection for them would be particularly vulnerable to attacks
by submarines whose stealth and unlimited range would make detection and
7Robert P. Berman, Soviet Naval Strength and
Deployment (New York: Praeger, 1977) p. 340.
localization an exceedingly difficult task for allied forces. Aircraft
would certainly menace convoy shipping.
The Soviets have a significant capability to disrupt allied maritime
operations during a war based in Europe and/or Asia. To face this threat
there are natural geographical barriers for the early detection and
interdiction of hostile Soviet aircraft as well as submarines. As such they
constitute the foundation for a potentially significant land-based
contribution to the defense of the Atlantic sea lanes against the Soviet
bomber and submarine threats, and therefore to allied defenses regardless of
the length of a war or the warning that precedes it.
The Atlantic Ocean possesses some natural geographic barriers for the
early detection and interdiction of Soviet aircraft and submarines and for
land-based air power and those are the Atlantic islands:
1. Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom which would control the
2. The Azores and Madeira Islands which would control the routes from
America to Europe and to the South Atlantic and the Strait of
Gibraltar and anti-submarine warfare.
The cost of employing land-based air is far less than the equivalent
cost of stationing a carrier in those areas or, indeed, of operating a
carrier elsewhere with a view to its rapid redeployment in those gaps.
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8U.S. Congress, Congressional Budget Office Defense
Resources Model, 1979, p. 32.
The Strategic Portuguese Land in this Geopolitical Scenario.
Portugal's modern military significance traces to October 1943, when
Salazar ended his World War II balancing act between the Axis and Allied
powers by allowing the British RAF to develop and use an airfield on
Terceira Island in the Azores. Thirteen months later, at the time of the
Normandy invasion. the United States entered into a formal agreement with
Salazar regime to use a companion field on Santa Maria Island.
Consequently, they began the official American military presence in Portugal
which continues today.
Following the war, the United States relinguished to Santa Maria Base
and entered into a new agreement providing for transit rights at Lajes Field
which had been a British RAF facility with an extension in 1948. This
agreement lasted until 1951 at which time the United States and Portugal
were joined in the NATO alliance.
Portugal is situated in the region where, historically, the permanent
dispute between the Maritime and Continental Powers has taken place. Also
that region which has been characterized by a chronical instability has
been designated as "Rimland" (See Figure 2).
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9Instituto Da Defesa National, Nacao e Defesa,
(Lisbon, 1980) p. 112
The Portuguese territory includes an Atlantic narrow strip peripheric
to the Iberian Peninsula (situated in the first line of contention of the
Continental Power dispute for influence and two Atlantic archipelagos, the
Azores and Madeira Islands (situated in the second line of contention dispute
for influence and sea control). See Figure 3.
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10Oliveira Marques, History of Portugal, Vol I and Vol II
(Columbia University Press, 1972) p. 42.
Thus, I would say that the triangle made up by the line joining
Continental Portugal, the Azores and Maerira Islands, is crossed by a real
strategic border. Indeed, the described border between the Continental
and the Maritime Powers was activated during World War II when all of
Western Europe was occupied by German forces. The Azores were given to the
United States and the United Kingdom so that the supply replenishment
and liberation operations could be jumped off to Europe.
Crossing the Protuguese territory the most important routes, both
maritime or aerial, establish the link to Europe, North and South America,
Africa and Middle East.
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11Instituto Da Defesa National, Nacao e Defesa
(Lisbon 180) p. 121.
The Madeira Islands, situated in front of the Strait of Gibraltar and
off the northwest coast of Africa, are in the most southern position within
the geographical area of NATO. See Figure 5.
Click here to view image
Portugal's Future Strategic Role
The Portuguese land can be described as the biggest anchored carrier in
the world to which can be assigned the following tasks:
1. In peacetime
-To support C-141 and C-5 missions of the Military Aircraft Command
-To support tactical aircraft delivries, exercises, and rotations.
-To serve as an alternate base for tactical and strategic aircraft
in the event of missed refueling or emergency.
-To provide flexibility in air routing to avoid adverse weather
conditions on the northern Atlantic route.
12Instituto Da Defesa NationaL, Nacao e Defesa
(Lisbon, 1980) p. 129.
-To support and control all aircraft transiting the mid-Atlantic.
2. For contingencies
The Azores is one of the most important forward bases in
facilitating movements of U.S.-based support to crisis areas in the Middle
East or North Africa as it did during the Middle East war of October 1973.
For the C-13O, a smaller cargo aircraft of shorter range, the use of the
Azores is necessary if transatlantic missions are not to be limited to the
northern route. These islands can serve as an effective substitute for the
bases in Europe and they provide an excellent staging base for tactical
3. In war
In the event of a major NATO confrontation with the Warsaw Pact
which would involve the immediate augmentation of U.S. forces in Europe, the
Portuguese land would serve as a main staging base for C-5A and C-141 troop
transport and material missions, tactical planes, and aircraft of the Civil
Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF).
a. As history as shown and as current operations indicate, and also
analytical analysis demonstrates, land-based aviation will be important to
American use of the sea for the foreseeable future. The concept of
pre-positioned forces and equipment is already a reality. Also, the United
States is today more dependent upon use of the sea for advancing its
political, economic, and military well-being than probably ever before in
the nation's history.
b. It appears that geography has afforded the western countries with
the opportunity to improve their sea control capability well within the next
decades, perhaps without having to resort to the construction of expensive
Land-based AWACS (or E-2C), early-warning aircraft, and
interceptors, such as the T-14, would radically improve the present air
defense systems. P-3's armed with Harpon could perform the antiship mission
in these areas. The B-52D's or the F-111's could also perform if they were
armed with the new antiship missiles. P-3's already make a major
contribution to the ASW effort. The advent of captor affords more scope for
their use or for the utilization of B-52's in the mine-laying role.
Thus, land-based aviation for sea control is an option available to
the navy today; it will remain available and become even more important
during the next quarter century.
c. In this context, the Portuguese land can provide operating bases for
land-based, antisubmarine warfare aircraft, principally Lockheed P-3's which
carry sophisticated equipment enabling them to detect, track, and destroy
both attack and ballistic submarines operating in the mid-Atlantic.
Employing the principle of triangulation, the Hf/Df system can locate and
track aircraft, submarines, surface combatants, merchant ships and fishing
vessels functioning as a primary source of intelligence.
In summary, the Portuguese land facilities provide capabilities for
submarine and surface surveillance and combat in the mid-Atlantic; the
staging of aircraft enroute from America to Europe and the Middle East; and
naval fuel storage.
Alford, Jonathan, ed. Sea Power and Influence, New Jersey: Gower
and Allan Held, Osmun and Co Publishers, 1980.
Berman, Robert P. Soviet Naval Strength and Deployment, Baker,
Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1982.
Carvalho, Virgilio. "Importancia Estrategica das Regioes Autonomas",
Nacao e Defesa, January - March 1980, pp. 111-132.
Chester, Edward W. The United States and Six Atlantic Outposts, the
Military and Economic Considerations. Kennikat Press, 1980.
Ferreira, Jose M. "Reflexoes Sobre a Importancia Estrategica Sas
Ilhas Atlanticas: Sua Dermanencia e Evolucao Historica.",
Nacao e Defesa, January - March 1980, pp. 135-144.
Marques, Oliveria. History of Portugal, Vol I and Vol II. Columbia
University Press, 1972.
Reynolds, Clark G. Command of the Sea, the History and Strategy of
Maritime Empires, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1974.
Sokol, Anthony E. Seapower in the Nuclear Age. Washington, D.C.: Public
Affairs Press, 1961.
U.S. Congress House Committee on Armed Services. Statement of Admiral James
L. Holloway III, USN, concerning The FY 1978 Posture and Fy1978 Budget
of the United States Navy, March 7, 1977.
U.S. Congress Congressional Budget Office Defense Resources Model. The
U.S. Sea Control Mission.
U.S. Congress Congressional Record, 88th Congress, 2nd Session, Vol 110,
pt 10, June 16, 1964.
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