OPORTO, Portugal — Five hundred years after Portugal ruled the seas, its naval force is negligible and its shipyards are ailing.
What began with the Age of Discovery, which sent pioneering navigators to Asia, Africa and America in search of spices and slaves, has ended with the weakest navy in NATO.
Once a colonial power that led in shipbuilding to conquer new worlds, Portugal is now Western Europe's poorest country and looks nostalgically at its long lost maritime might.
There is little hint of past seafaring glory in Portugal's tiny fleet, experts say.
"Portugal's navy is equivalent to that of a developing country," said one Western naval expert.
Portugal, whose territorial waters including Madeira and the Azores islands are 17 times the size of its land, is strategically located and has more exclusive waters than any other NATO country except Norway.
But its naval strength and spending are the weakest in the alliance.
Oporto, birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator, who launched Portugal's 15th-Century maritime expansion, no longer relies on seafaring. Like other ports it has turned away from shipbuilding to other industries.
Portugal is the only NATO country whose ships do not have missile systems, and much of its equipment is outdated. Its naval strength has shrunk by about 10% in the last 15 years, officials say.
One expert said the Portuguese are patching up their navy.
"They're 'Band-Aiding' their force. They keep it fairly well operating but some weapons and systems are 25 years old," he said.
Portuguese naval officials complain they are constrained by a budget of only $325 million--about half of which goes on personnel. That does not leave much money to keep up equipment or buy fuel for ships.
The decline has particularly set in since Portugal gave up its African colonies following its 1974 leftist revolution. And with the current center-right government struggling to prune the nation's big budget deficit it is hard for the Navy to get much more cash.
Adding to the lack of funds for new equipment is the fact that the 15,000-man force is also responsible for coast guard duty. Peacetime activities are growing for the fleet's 80 vessels--50 of which are small patrol boats and harbor craft.
Portugal's fleet also includes 16 frigates, three diesel submarines and four largely inoperative minesweepers.
Called a Good Ally
NATO officials describe Portugal as a good ally which lends helpful, though small, logistical support.
The navy is awaiting three multipurpose "Vasco de Gama" Meko-class frigates which are due to be delivered from 1990. The frigates are being built in West Germany and a consortium of several countries is contributing money and equipment.
One Western source estimated the frigates will cost about $900 million, of which Portugal will pay $100 million or less.
The navy is also getting five U.S.-made SH2F "Seaspray" helicopters, starting in 1991, which will provide a solid anti-submarine warfare platform. This will be the first time since 1952 that the navy will have an aviation arm--but it will have to train the new team from scratch.