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Tradition Drives Modernization In Portugal

One of NATO’s oldest and smaller member nations is vying with history and modern economics as it endeavors to tailor a modern military that can respond to any contingency coalition operation around the world. Portugal, which has been an independent nation for more than 850 years, seeks to maintain its global tradition of international cooperation amid rapid changes in the military and economic makeup of the Atlantic alliance.
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine


A Portuguese armored vehicle column patrols a village in Afghanistan. Portugal’s military is modernizing to serve in whatever missions may emerge in its role as a partner in multinational coalition operations.

A global outlook influences military transformation efforts.

One of NATO’s oldest and smaller member nations is vying with history and modern economics as it endeavors to tailor a modern military that can respond to any contingency coalition operation around the world. Portugal, which has been an independent nation for more than 850 years, seeks to maintain its global tradition of international cooperation amid rapid changes in the military and economic makeup of the Atlantic alliance.

Pursuing this goal has opened up fault lines that plague many modern militaries. New technologies are the key to an effective force, but they must interoperate with their counterparts in other nations that are likely to be coalition partners. Where Portugal originally faced interoperability challenges in NATO, it now has the additional challenge of meeting different requirements as a member of the European Union. And, it must meet these obligations without hindering its basic task of protecting Portugal.

Portugal’s Chief of Joint General Staff, Gen. Luis Valença Pinto, POA, observes that the fundamental mission of the country’s armed forces remains to ensure national defense and security. However, the military also is involved in “other missions of public interest,” as he describes them. These missions can include civil protection, search and rescue, and cooperation with Portugal’s internal security forces in combating threats such as terrorism—as permitted by law, the general emphasizes.

As with any modern military, the Portuguese armed forces face a host of challenges. Gen. Valença Pinto describes continuing the ongoing force transformation as the biggest challenge. Portugal faces the dichotomy of maintaining consistency for the transformation amid the dynamic global political, social, operational and strategic environment. This transformation must take place while maintaining national and institutional values and principles, he emphasizes.

Those values and principles go back centuries, and they define Portugal’s vision for its military as well as its role in NATO and the European Union. “Our history and experience make us a country with strong global connections along with a good and natural understanding of other cultures,” the general points out, noting that many other NATO members share the same experience and outlook.

“We are a country with a nine-centuries-long history as an independent nation,” he continues. “We were the world’s first global power, and from that we developed global connections and interests.” In the past 15 years, Portugal has deployed more than 30,000 military personnel abroad in 18 theaters of operation on four continents. As a founding member of NATO and a participant in the ongoing process of European construction, Portugal does not view itself as a niche country when it comes to multinational operations.

Unlike many NATO members that tailor their militaries toward serving specific roles in the alliance, Portugal endeavors to provide a multifaceted military that can serve in any contingency facing the alliance. “Our view, our purpose, our aim is to be generically able to perform in the entire spectrum of military operations—naturally, in a manner fully compatible with the scale of our national power,” Gen. Valença Pinto explains.

Portugal does recognize its limitations. For example, the country does not plan on building aircraft carriers. However, as a maritime nation, it does continue to maintain a blue-water navy. A Portuguese frigate led Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 last year, including during counterpiracy operations near the horn of Africa.  Portuguese navy special forces helped thwart a pirate attack on a container ship off the coast of Somalia in June. The general notes that Portugal also is a land and air nation, so it will continue to maintain a balanced force structure integrating ground and air forces.

To uphold its international commitments, the Portuguese military must have the ability “to operate in a comprehensive approach scenario,” the general declares. This entails interoperating fully with diverse forces in a variety of missions. The general notes that this is a two-way street. “Of course, we expect them to be able to operate with us,” which will require political and diplomatic efforts in concert with military planning, he points out.

“We view ourselves in the military arena as a cooperation country,” he continues. “In the recent past—10 to 15 years—we have been very active in the field of military cooperation.”

Portugal is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Gen. Valença Pinto notes that the multifaceted elements of the ISAF mission all require a comprehensive approach, which is defining current ISAF activities to a greater degree than just a few years ago. Portugal has participated with different forces—maneuver, air transport, medical and airport control forces—always “without caveat,” he declares. The country has a medical team and a maneuver force as well as others in Afghanistan.

In the future, Portugal will continue to participate as coalition efforts evolve, the general says. In particular, the country looks to focus on reinforcing the strengths and skills of the Afghan security forces—specifically, the army and the air force—as they take shape under a legitimate Afghan political authority. Gen. Valença Pinto emphasizes that Afghanistan’s security force cannot be an objective unto itself. 

For the near term, Portugal’s military has four main priorities. One is to become more joint and interoperable. The focus of this effort is on activities rather than technologies. Its targets are mentality, institutional culture, practices and structures, Gen. Valença Pinto explains. Technology enters the picture in areas such as command and control (C2) requirements. The general offers that C2 requirements down to the operational level should not be met by any perspective other than jointness. And, tactical C2 requirements that are satisfied at the theater level must be fully consistent with joint standards as defined at the operational and strategic levels.

Another priority is to implement recent top-level national defense reforms. This includes building a joint operations command, establishing a joint military hospital, developing joint doctrine, engaging in joint training and improving the country’s joint war and staff college.

A third priority is to reinforce defense planning. The general explains that this entails maintaining full coherence between mission requirements and resources on a national scale. This also includes maintaining full coherence with the NATO and European Union defense planning processes.

This effort is easier said than done. Gen. Valença Pinto relates that Portugal did not have too much difficulty maintaining coherence with just NATO, but coordinating both NATO and European Union defense planning is a struggle. Synchronizing those two defense planning processes with that of Portugal is proving difficult.


Special forces based on a Portuguese frigate (background) apprehend pirates who attacked a commercial container ship off the coast of Somalia. Portugal’s navy is taking part in international operations to protect seagoing traffic in those pirate-infested waters.

A few countries, led by Germany, are struggling against the differences between NATO and European Community planning, the general continues. Synchronizing and harmonizing the two efforts is less a technical issue than a political one, he says. Ultimately, it will have to be solved largely on political grounds.

The general describes his fourth priority as to uphold Portugal’s high standards of military training and education. That affects both current military effectiveness and the makeup of Portugal’s armed forces in the future.

One looming challenge is the need to maintain an adequate level of force personnel. Currently, Portugal counts nearly 41,000 troops in its military, most of which are in the army. When the country’s military abandoned conscription and became a professional force in 2004, it lost thousands of uniformed personnel. Gen. Valença Pinto states that Portugal must continue to strive to maintain the current force level.

The government provides special allowances to enable its military personnel to attend college. A related incentive is a slight priority advantage for admission into public administration. Salaries are competitive, and education is improving for junior noncommissioned officers (NCOs).

Portugal also is looking toward several key equipment programs on which its military is counting for the future. At the top of the list is command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), Gen. Valença Pinto states. Advanced C4ISR systems allow the military to work better and faster, he observes, which increases efficiency and cohesiveness.

Three basic considerations dominate C4ISR concerns. First, the general emphasizes, is that “modernization is not an end in itself.” The second consideration is that regardless of technology advances, it is the soldier who continues to be the most important asset for military action, even in this modern era. And third, most military actions today must include accommodating the hearts and minds of the local populace. All three elements must dominate C4ISR issues, he says.

Portugal also must modernize its C-130 air fleet, and it wants to build a multipurpose field logistics ship that can deploy a battalion-size force along with a field hospital and headquarters facility. The military wants to expand its force of 4x4 light armored vehicles, and it aims to renovate and expand its fleets of medium and light helicopters. And, Portugal needs to replace its family of individual weapons.

The country must modernize its military infrastructure, especially in training and living conditions for junior NCOs. This is essential for retaining trained personnel in a professional military, the general observes.

And, above all, Portugal’s military must find the financial resources to allow it to move ahead in military capacities. “We want to converge with other armed forces through capacities and not through financial indicators,” Gen. Valença Pinto declares.

“I don’t know what Portugal’s armed forces will be like in 10 years’ time,” he says. “But, I expect them to continue to be highly motivated, highly trained and ensuring the same national mission that is the case today.

“At the same time, I hope they will be better equipped, and I also expect that they can live and operate fully under a much deeper and stronger joint context. It’s not the economy that should drive the process of increased jointness; this evolution is mandatory to meet the requirements of today, and it will be even more important in the future,” the general declares.

The general is uncertain that the Portuguese military can obtain the financial resources that it needs for the way ahead. However, he is confident that Portugal’s civilian leadership will pay careful attention to the needs of the armed forces. “The armed forces exist for the country,” Gen. Valença Pinto states. “We are an open country that is engaged internationally … and we will find our own way.”

Portugal Ministry of Defense (Portuguese language): www.emgfa.pt