Operation Silent Comet refers to the tactical air and naval strikes undertaken on August 10, 1985 by Portugal against the Spanish African Fleet of the Spanish People's Navy, brutally crippling the already-weak navy within the course of a day during the Third Iberian War. By utilizing a three-pronged offensive - high-altitude aerial bombers against sea targets, air-to-water torpedoes and tactical rocket strikes by low-altitude fighters outfitted specifically for the mission, and a coastal bombardment by fast naval vessels - the Portuguese were able to effectively neutralize the Spanish fleet moored at three ports along the African coast, thus preventing countermeasures by the African Fleet and allowing the Portuguese Navy's main contingents to blockade the Strait of Gibraltar against the Spanish Mediterranean Fleet. The overall tactical and strategic victory by the Portuguese during Silent Comet is regarded as having been crucial to the rapid refocus of the war towards a conventional ground campaign, and established near-total air superiority of Portugal, further cemented by further operations such as Night Comet and Crystal Comet.
Events of 8.10.1985
Aftermath and Appraisal
Casualties and Losses
In the course of Silent Comet, two Portuguese F-16's were shot down by Spanish anti-aircraft guns at Torreo Shipyard, with all four pilots killed. The pilots - Manuel Silva, Lucio Soares, Carlos Lopes and Miguel Salazar - were all awarded the Distinguished Medal of Valor of the Kingdom of Portugal posthumously. Additionally, a fast-attack boat (NRP F220 Pedro Malvarde) was sunk by a Spanish corvette during its attack, with six of thirteen crewmen killed. The captain, Rodrigo Lopes, was posthumously given the Portuguese Naval Award of Excellence. In total, ten Portuguese lost their lives in the attacks.
The Spanish suffered considerably more significant losses. At the three Atlantic ports at which the Spanish were attacked, they lost a total of 37 ships and were forced to repair an additional 16, a total of 53 ships which was nearly a third of the Spanish Navy at the time and almost all 60 ships of the African Fleet. Upwards 750 Spanish sailors, crewmen and soldiers were killed during Silent Comet, and an additional 4,500 were wounded or rendered unfit for duty. High-altitude Portuguese bombers also rendered defensive airfields useless by cratering runways and bombing hangars, preventing the Spanish from scrambling helicopters or interceptors from the adjacent airfields.
Effect on War
The attack, which came as a surprise in the days and even hours before the African Fleet was to be launched against Portugal, was so swift and overwhelming that Admiral Antonio Alvas, head of the African Fleet Group A, remarked that "this may be the most devastating single loss in Spanish military history." With oil tanks, response hangars, runways and navy yards all devastated along with the boats destroyed, the African Fleet was virtually crippled and forced to go into repair mode. Of the sixteen ships that required repair, all were floated to Casablanca Naval Station, the largest and least-damaged of the three, where they were heavily guarded. By August 15, both Ceuta and Tangier had been closed, with assets transferred from auxiliary stations such as Larache, Rabat and Ansila.
Ceuta and Tangier largely rendered useless, Portugal no longer had to fear its southern flank in blockading the Strait of Gibraltar, a strategic victory that was the eventual goal of the war. With naval and air superiority at Spain's most important chokepoint, the war would effectively be fought on land, where Spain had a small advantage, and in the air, where Portugal would have a decisive advantage.