The Portuguese Navy is on the brink of catastrophe: only one of its five frigates is operational and the Vasco da Gama – the jewel in the crown of the country’s ‘war fleet’ – has been anchored in the Arsenal de Alfeite shipyard for the last four years, awaiting hugely expensive repairs.
Explains Expresso, “the more the time passes, the more difficult it will be” to repair the frigate to point that it can return to active service.
Indeed, maintenance issues throughout the Navy have reached crunch point.
Former Naval chiefs have described the situation as “disastrous” and “a catastrophe”.
A number of ships have had to make do with ‘cannibalised’ repairs, to ensure their permanence at sea – and at time of writing only one frigate, the Álvares Cabral, is in full working order.
The Corte Real is being made ready for a NATO mission in August, two others are in Holland being ‘modernised’: D. Francisco de Almeida is “at a more advanced stage”, says Expresso, but the Bartolomeu Dias was unfortunately rammed in the boatyard by a towboat “for which reason delivery will be delayed”.
“Even the four brand new Naval Ocean Patrol boats, known as NPOs, are starting to have problems”, while plans to purchase six more seem to have hit the doldrums.
Former CEMA (Naval chief of staff) Admiral Macieira Fragoso stresses: “If nothing is done, and if the budgetary situation persists (for that read: lack of available cash) we are headed for a situation of catastrophe in terms of ships”.
In terms of submarines (which cost a billion euros to purchase in 2014 and tens of millions to maintain ever since), Trident is operational, Arpão is stuck in Alfeite.
Indeed, this is another part of the problem: due to the massive descaling of professionals at the naval shipyard since the troika years, there simply aren’t enough ‘specialised workers and engineers’ to work on naval boats, even if the money came through.
Due to Arpão’s size – and its maintenance priority – work on other vessels has been delayed.
Says Expresso, defence minister João Gomes Cravinho is in ‘intense dialogue’ with the ministries of finance and infrastructures – but finance minister João Leão has a reputation of holding onto cash as long as possible.
“When he was budget secretary under (his predecessor) Mário Centeno” colleagues described him as “having thrown away the keys to the safe with the State’s money left inside”, says the paper.
In other words, easing the naval budget along is not proving an easy task.
Even if it was, the “accumulation of deficiencies” has reached a point that money cannot perform miracles.
Said Macieira Fragoso “if the government gave the Navy €30 million tomorrow, Alfeite would not have the capacity of response because of successive years of degradation…”
The PSD has already suggested the government use some of Europe’s bazooka funding to invest at least in Alfeite – but to date nothing has been decided.