From 1963 to 1974, Portugal and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, or PAIGC) waged an increasingly intense war for the independence of “Portuguese” Guinea, then a colony but today the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. For most of this conflict Portugal enjoyed virtually unchallenged air supremacy and increasingly based its strategy on this advantage. The Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa, abbreviated FAP) consequently played a central role in the war for Guinea, at times threatening the PAIGC with military defeat. Portugal’s reliance on air power compelled the insurgents to search for an effective counter-measure, and by 1973 they succeeded with their acquisition and employment of the Strela-2 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, altering the course of the war and the future of Portugal itself in the process. To date, however, no detailed study of this seminal episode in air power history has been conducted. In an international climate plagued by insurgency, terrorism, and the proliferation of sophisticated weapons, the hard lessons learned by Portugal offer enduring insight to historians and current air power practitioners alike. This study consequently aims to correct that shortfall in the existing literature.
Much of the information in this document has been derived from the reflections and first-hand recollections of combatants on both sides of the conflict. Additional data has been drawn from the archival record, particularly the Archivo Histórico da Força Aérea outside Lisbon and satellite collections of PAIGC documentation in the United States. The collected evidence is presented as a narrative detailing the context and course of the conflict itself, the struggle for air mastery, and the aftermath. Additional contextual information is presented in separate chapters to frame the central narrative regarding the air and air defense war for Guinea.
The evidence demonstrates that the FAP—despite the many challenges it faced—was indeed effective against its insurgent adversaries in Guinea, so much so that those insurgents devoted considerable military effort and diplomatic capital to the problem of air defense. Their subsequent use of the Strela-2 missile, a weapon ideally suited to guerrilla needs, downed five Portuguese aircraft within a two-week period in the Spring of 1973. Those losses initiated a cascade of effects that impacted, in turn, the FAP’s ability to prosecute the air war, the Portuguese Army’s ability to maintain its military position on the ground, and Portuguese forces’ willingness to continue the three colonial wars then raging in Angola and Mozambique as well as Guinea. Ultimately, this cascade of effects contributed to—and in some respects precipitated—the 25 April 1974 coup that overthrew the authoritarian regime in Lisbon and led to the independence of Portugal’s African territories. The air war for Guinea thus represents a near-textbook case of war’s inherent complexity (given the disproportionality between action and result), as well as the value—and the vulnerabilities—of air power in a counter-insurgency context.