Portugal, US float plan for carrier base

The US plan to station aircraft carriers in Lisbon Harbor appears to be the first concrete response to Portugal's strong stand on Afghanistan and Iran. US officials have stressed that the plan is only tentative, but the Portuguese government has confirmed that initial talks have already taken place. A Pentagon mission is expected in Lisbon soon to survey the area.

The possible stationing of the carriers in Portugal is part of the US strategy aimed at boosting naval facilities in Europe in response to rising international tensions. Portugal is one of a number of NATO member countries to have been approached, although Lisbon has been earmarked as one of the more probable sites.

The Carter administration is impressed by the way Portugal's center-right government has gone further than any of its European allies in demonstrating solidarity. Portugal was the first country, after the United States, to withdraw its ambassador from Moscow and to review cultural and diplomatic links with the East bloc after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

It was also the first European country to break off trade with Iran, one of its main oil suppliers. Portugal's encouraging response to the aircraft carrier plan is consistent with its hard-line and pro-Western foreign policy.

Last June the country agreed to the continued US use of the strategically important Lajes Air Force Base in the Azores as well as an antisubmarine listening post on the island.

Both facilities theoretically belong to Portugal, but their use by the US is guaranteed within the framework of NATO membership and an existing agreement between the US and Portugal. This contains an implicit understanding that in the event of war the air base can be mobilized. In the 1973 Middle East war it was used as a vital airlift for US military supplies to Israel.

Logistically, the siting of the aircraft carriers could provide a backup to the Azores base in controlling mid-Atlantic sea routes. But officials here say this is only one of various scenarios. It could be used by carriers on their way to the Mediterranean or the Gulf.

The harbor, however, will be used as more than just a stopover. Significantly, the Pentagon team is expected to take a close look at housing and existing facilities for members of the fleet and their families.

The Portuguese government has reacted swiftly and positively to the US request for further facilities. But defense officials in Lisbon have indicated they would prefer the aircraft carriers to be stationed in the port of Sines, 100 miles south of Lisbon. They admit this would be politically less sensitive and leave Lisbon even vulnerable to attack.

Portugal has made it known it would expect more compensation for new facilities. The lease on the Azores base was extened only after the US agreed to grant Portugal $140 million in military and economic aid.

Portugal has not notified the US about the price it might have to pay in the latest venture. But officials here have indicated that Portugal's armed forces, still the least modern within NATO, are in desperate need of new equipment and aid.

NATO, during its recent meeting in Brussels, appears to have had this in mind when it decided to give Portugal three new frigates. The gift -- a small part of which will have to be paid for by the Portuguese -- was welcomed in Lisbon defense circles as proof that Portugal is being given a new role within NATO. Until now, Lisbon's fear was that better-equipped Spain would preempt any broader NATO role for Portugal.

Further optimism was generated by the announcement from Brussels that Portugal was to be readmitted into NATO's sensitive nuclear planning group.

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