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NRP Tridente Type 209PN - Missions

The Portuguese Navy has been operating submarines since 1913, when it purchased its first three submarines from Italy. In 1964, Portugal bought four diesel-electric attack submarines from France (Daphne Class). Of these, only the Barracuda, commissioned in 1968, remained operational by 2009 -- though there were growing concerns about its safety given its age -- and was used for training exercises and counter-smuggling operations. The two new German Class 209 submarines would give the Portuguese Navy the capacity for defense and law enforcement patrol.

The Portuguese Navy considers the vast triangular maritime area in the Atlantic Ocean delineated by Portugal, the Azores, and Madeira to be their neighborhood to defend and patrol. Under the Law of the Sea, Portugal actually has jurisdiction over a smaller area encompassing some 1.7 million square kilometers. According to Portuguese Navy maritime strategy, "that sea must be protected, surveyed, exploited, and defended, in order to safeguard national interests."

Submarines can fulfill many maritime applications and can, in fact, be justified as contributing to the Portuguese Navy's dual defense and law enforcement mission. In addition to their defense function, submarines serve as discreet surveillance platforms that can be used to track suspicious vessels with illicit cargo. Proponents are hard-pressed, however, to articulate specifically why, other than their stealth, the submarines are more appropriate than other, cheaper platforms.

The problem with the submarines is not that they do not readily fit into Portuguese strategy; but rather, the purchase represents a missed opportunity to procure more urgently needed, and arguably more strategically useful, assets. As maritime threats to national security have decreased, the Portuguese Navy has been increasingly focused on its law enforcement mandate. Thus, a fleet of ocean-crossing surface vehicles might have been more appropriate. Similarly, the Portuguese Air Force needed helicopters to replace its twenty 1960s vintage helicopters, and to modernize avionics for its six C-130 transport aircraft. Finally, the submarines contribute little to NATO's emphasis on deployable forces.

With 800 kilometers of coastline and two distant archipelagoes to defend, the two German submarines were not the wisest investment. The subs had no formal mission task and lack the resources even to patrol aimlessly. Portugal purchased the submarine hulls but failed to order missile systems, meaning the subs would be without a strike capability even if they did have a mission. The two submarines replace two 50-year old Daphne class submarines that, although officially in service, were described by a U.S. Navy submariner as "deathtraps" that rarely left the pier. Meanwhile, Portugal had few serviceable coastal patrol craft for littoral defense and to address narco-trafficking, migration, and fisheries.

The Portuguese prosecutor's office filed charges 30 September 2009 against seven Portuguese and three Germans involved in the deal for forging contract documents and defrauding the Government of Portugal out of approximately 34M Euros. The unfolding scandal immediately sparked debate over the wisdom of buying the subs. The ruling Socialists (PS) were quick to point out that the contract was signed in 2004 by the Social Democratic (PSD) government then in power, when PSD leader Manuela Ferreira Leite was Minister of Finance. Former PS Speaker of Parliament Almeida Santos quipped that he might be a "bit of a donkey," but he failed to understand why Portugal needed the subs. "Portugal does not need the submarines at all," he said, adding that Portugal "urgently needs to sell the submarines" to acquire weapons more "useful and necessary." Predictably, then PSD Minister of Defense Paulo Portas, who signed the contract in 2004, denied the allegations, underscoring that they came from anonymous sources, were tied to the 2009 election season, and were a case of "history badly told."

The Portuguese are steeped in their seafaring history and feel an almost visceral pride in their maritime tradition and their past glory as a global empire. With their only submarine scheduled to be decommissioned in 2010, giving up the purchase of these two submarines would mean relinquishing all submarine capability. This sense of pride explains why a country of ten million people, a member of the NATO alliance facing no discernible maritime threat, would purchase such expensive submarines in the first place. While the unfolding scandal may have sparked public debate over the wisdom of the purchase, and some legal experts speculate that the fraud charges open the door to annul or renegotiate the purchase, the debate at this point is mostly academic. The Government of Portugal gave every indication that it will go ahead with the purchase and the Portuguese Navy continued to prepare to incorporate the two submarines into their arsenal.

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