Portuguese Air Force – Colonial Africa


Nord Noratlas, Dornier Do-27, T-6 Texan, SA 326 Alouette, PV-2 Harpoon and Fiat G91 of the Portuguese Air Force during the colonial wars.

Following the 1952 reorganization of the Portuguese Air Force from the army and naval air arms, Portugal now had an entity dedicated solely to aviation that would bring it into line with its new NATO commitment. As it proceeded to develop a competence in modern multi-engine and jet fighter aircraft for its NATO role and train a professional corps of pilots, it was suddenly confronted in 1961 with fighting insurgencies in all three of its African possessions. This development forced it to acquire an entirely new and separate air force, the African air force, to address this emerging danger. The aircraft available at the time were largely cast-offs from the larger, richer, and more sophisticated air forces of its NATO partners and not designed for counterinsurgency. Yet Portugal adapted them to the task and effectively crafted the appropriate strategies and tactics for their successful employment. The book explores the vicissitudes of procurement, an exercise fraught with anti-colonial political undercurrents, the imaginative modification and adaptation of the aircraft to fight in the African theaters, and the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures for their effective employment against an elusive, clever, and dangerous enemy. Advances in weaponry, such as the helicopter gunship, were the outgrowth of combat needs. The acquired logistic competences assured that the needed fuel types and lubricants, spare parts, and qualified maintenance personnel were available in even the most remote African landing sites. The advanced flying skills, such as visual reconnaissance and air-ground coordinated fire support, were honed and perfected.

In the ultramar Portugal had deployed by 1973 some 149,000 army troops, about 3,000 naval personnel, and about 6,000 airmen, including about 1,900 paratroops, for an approximate total of 158,000. When actual aviation personnel are considered, there were about 4,000 throughout the ultramar at the height of the conflict in 1973. Operating and maintaining aircraft and aviation facilities required aptitudes and skills well above the average military service entry in both the officer and enlisted ranks, and thus by the simple nature of its design, the FAP was an elite force of relatively small numbers. Yet its impact or leverage was anything but small and was felt by the enemy daily in every theater. Fighting insurgents is a complex business and requires a deep understanding of the use of air power in a supporting role. The FAP appreciated its mission and was able to execute it remarkably well time and time again with a variety of proven yet often obsolete aircraft assembled in a true counterinsurgency air force.

In the ultramar, the war might be termed intelligence intensive, as it was largely driven by this aspect. Insurgents crossing the borders generally formed columns or groups, and these had to travel relatively great distances to reach targets of any consequence. Even in the small territory of Guiné it took many days to penetrate inland. The terrain in all of the theaters was comparatively remote, and insurgent groups first needed to be located in this wilderness and then tracked to determine their direction and intentions. While PIDE/DGS agents in the sanctuary countries often provided critical information on the assault column, such as its size and departure details, once it had crossed the border, it could easily become “lost” in the dense vegetation that covered most of the battlefield in the ultramar. Here aviation reconnaissance in all of its forms played a vital role in developing the broader picture that reflected many other contributing sources, such as PIDE/DGS agents, paid informants, turned prisoners, captured documents, infantry patrols, and the like. However, it was Portuguese air reconnaissance that dramatically increased the intelligence capabilities of the ground forces. The UCTI in the north of Angola is but one example in which the heli-borne trackers enabled heli-born paras to swoop onto unsuspecting and vulnerable enemy columns isolated and far from help. Another was the “pirate” operations in the east of Angola in which heli-borne commandos supported by gunships acting on intelligence routinely destroyed insurgent penetrations. Airpower also brought devastation to these columns with deep strikes into the remote terrain where they were hiding. The Fiat armed reconnaissance missions into Téte represent the classic example of this potent capability.

While intelligence gathering was vital to locating and destroying insurgents, the war on the ground was one of light infantry. A soldier, whether he was a Portuguese or an insurgent, could carry only so much and be an effective fighter. Thus when Portuguese forces made contact with the enemy in the remoteness of the ultramar, heavy firepower needed to be brought to the fight quickly, and airpower proved indispensable in filling this important supporting role. Close air support made the difference in almost every case between the Portuguese prevailing or alternatively suffering casualties and allowing the insurgents to escape. This support function was ably performed in a variety of ways by the “low-tech” approach and illustrates the careful coordination of joint air-ground operations.

Portugal was not a wealthy country at the time and was forced to craft a counterinsurgency air force from obsolete but proven aircraft. To its enormous credit it was able to devise new and ingenious uses for this equipment. For instance, the use of the World War II-vintage T-6G Harvard trainer in a reconnaissance and attack role represents a clear example of this, and it proved its worth throughout the war. First, it was inexpensive and available. Second, it was ideal for the job, as it was slow and had a long loiter time, characteristics that lent it to spotting small terrorist bands from the air and marking targets for attack aircraft. Armed with bombs, rockets, and machineguns, the Harvard was also able to hit targets with deadly accuracy as a light attack aircraft.

Old transports, such as the C-47 Dakota, were also inexpensive and available and supported the population, supplied forward bases, dropped paras, performed reconnaissance and psychological support, and even acted as improvised bombers. The Noratlas, a recycled attempt at a hybrid civilian-military transport, proved indispensable with its short field capability and easy-access rear doors. The Dornier likewise with its STOL capability proved an inexpensive yet vital workhorse. The “front line” attack aircraft, the F-86, F-84, and G-91, were all obsolete and unable to go against the Soviet forces in Europe successfully. These castoffs carried major bomb loads on critical attack and close air support missions – all still very effective in the African environment.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, airpower provided the Portuguese with the flexibility and initiative that normally belongs to the insurgent. Before airpower, insurgents used to move quickly, live off the land, and benefit from better intelligence than the government because of their contact with a local, supportive population. Insurgents could carefully choose where and when to strike, and the government was usually forced to react, often in futile chases scrambling after a long-vanished foe. Portuguese airpower changed this balance and shifted the advantage.

Airpower now allowed Portuguese troops to be deposited in remote areas and remain supplied and supported for long periods of time. Operations during the reoccupation of the north of Angola in the early years of the conflict illustrate this capability. Further, Portuguese airpower enabled ground forces to harry the enemy relentlessly and, when he was cornered, had the ability to deliver devastating and accurate firepower to destroy him. In summary, Portuguese airpower robbed the insurgent of his initiative and foreclosed the normal insurgent advantage of surprise.

This seemingly makeshift approach was anything but that and was part of a comprehensive overall strategy to defend the territorial borders and to destroy the enemy columns that violated them. Air and other military operations were conducted in coordination with government reforms, education and health advances, economic programs, and information campaigns to support these efforts. Spínola’s “A Better Guiné” was the best known; however, those in Angola and Mozambique managed to generate economic growth of 11 percent and 9 percent respectively over many years. The people in these colonies were too busy with prosperity to subscribe to the insurgent messages.

Unfortunately, insurgencies are always long wars, and Portugal was not truly prepared either intellectually or materially to fight such a conflict. Long wars are frustrating to airmen because of the highly complex and technical nature of aviation and the expertise needed to manage even routine operations. It takes many years to develop an effective air force and long periods to adapt to fighting insurgents. The FAP in this case began with a sound foundation grounded in NATO and adapted remarkably well. The years of small strikes, heli-borne para raids, close air support missions, and troop transport and resupply missions were wearing on both men and machines with no end in sight. It was not only the FAP that was exhausted in the end, it was an entire nation. After Spínola’s experience with Caetano, particularly after initially being his great admirer, it was apparent to the even lowest airman that change was needed. While FAP leadership had proved farsighted in both its preparation for and conduct of the war and had helped grind the enemy to a halt, the politicians had failed with complementary support. When the military ultimately intervened on 25 April 1974, it provided the missing political solution and made possible a transition to democracy.

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