Portugal bargains for US military aid with strategic mid-Atlantic base
Lisbon — With the Portugeuese armed forces screaming that they have not been given enough funds in this year's budget, Lisbon's foreign minister is going to Washington to secure all the can get for the only thing Portugal has to bargain with -- its strategic position.
It is Andre Goncalves Pereira's first foreign visit since he joined the new government in January and he is coming to Washington March 25 as one of the NATO allies Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. wants to inform of the Reagan administration's foreign policy.
Portugal fits into Washington's new global strategy in the mid-Altantic. The US maintains a key air base at Lajes in the Portuguese Azores archipelago.
Not since the hastily arranged US airlift of arms to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war has the Lajes base appeared so important. With Washington concentrating on setting up a Rapid Deployment Force that could intervene in any emergency where vital American interests are threatened in the Middle East, The Reagan administration needs Lajes more than ever.
The Pentagon has earmarked $51.4 million to prepare Lajes for handling the Rapid Deployment Force since this Atlantic refueling stop is the only wayt that fully loaded Galaxies, Starlifters, and other military transports can reach assembly points in Egypt from the eastern seaboard.
The Portuguese foreign minister has said in advance that Portugal is ready to help the United States, but he also pointed out that such assistance could only be within reasonable limits and that the Americans would have to give something in return.
With Portugal's controversial news Army chief, Gen. Amadeu Garcia Dos Santos, complaining in military speeches that the armed forces have been asked to tighten their belts too much this year, and a general coup fever sweeping through the Iberian Peninsula, Mr. Goncalves Pereira is likely to ask the United States to help out with more hardware for Lisbon's battle-trained but underequipped soldiers.
The Portuguese, however, cannot afford to hold out a completely open door to the Americans over Lajes when military plans for the Middle East are involved, since the Arabs provide three-quarters of Portugal's soil.
In practice, the Portuguese hold little control over what use the Americans make of Lajes. Portuguese officers admit in their military journals that they do not have the technical means to check what flies through the base. The government says Washington has to seek Lisbon's authorization before using the base for any non-NATO purpose.
Opposition politicians who have been the secret clauses of the agreement renewing the Lajes lease until 1983 say that all America has to do is to inform Portugal of its intentions without giving too many details.It is not even a case of prior consultation.
The Lajes base is given added importance by the fact that the US bases in Spain are coming up for renegotiation this year and that Madrid has always refused to allow the United States to use these on any missions that could irritate the Arab world.
But in spite of the Azores' strategic importance due to Lajes, their position on the main transatlantic shipping route between northern Europe and America, and the importance of the US sonar listening post on Santa Maria for monitoring Soviet submarines in the Atlantic, the islands are virtually undefended.
Portuguese politicians and military officers said one topic Mr. Goncalves Pereira would have to raise with Mr. Haig was the eventual reinforcement of theAzores to match its growing strategic importance.
"Sooner or later the United States will have to station fighter squadrons there to show the local population that steps are being taken to protect their safety, quite apart from the pratical need to keep open the air corridor to Egypt," a prominent Azorean policitian said.
The Portuguese foreign minister will be leaving for Cairo at the end of March on his first trip to the Arab world.
Senior Portuguese officers have expressed concern about how much control this country actually exercised over its most important territory and what say they would be given over the Azores intime of war. "Neither the Pentagon nor the State Department has really ever been able to think of the Azores as part of Portugal," the Azorean politician commented locanically.
The previous Portuguese government tried to have NATO control over the Azores shifted to Lisbon from the Western Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia, but the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, US Adm. Harry Train, dashed these hopes.