The United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has confirmed today the Pentagon’s decision to downsize the US presence in the Lajes Field on Terceira, Azores.
The news follow a statement by US Ambassador in Portugal, Robert Sherman, announcing yesterday the Pentagon’s plan for a gradual reduction, this year, on civil and military personnel at the Lajes military base. According to Sherman, the reduction will involve the downsizing of 900 to 400 Portuguese civil workers and of 650 to 165 US civil and military personnel.
Lajes Field is the island’s second largest employer. The decision, which will save the Pentagon an estimated $35 million annually, will significantly impact the local economy.
The announcement caught the Portuguese administration by surprise. Last month, the US House of Representatives had requested a “specific revaluation” on the strategic relevance for the United States of the of Lajes Field. According to the request, the US Administration was prevented from reducing military personnel at Lajes Field until the revaluation was completed.
Reacting to the news, the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rui Machete, said in a statement, “The Portuguese Government expresses its strong disappointment for this decision, which didn’t take into consideration the concerns conveyed to the United States over the past two years, in conjunction with the Regional Government [of the Azores].”
The President of the Government of the Azores, Vasco Cordeiro, also expressed his frustration by denouncing the Pentagon’s decision as “a monumental slap in the face of the Portuguese Government.”
In 2012, citing budgetary constraints, the US administration had informed the Portuguese government that it would significantly reduce its military presence at Lajes Field. The budget cuts come from a law enacted two years ago that ordered the government to come up with $1.2tn in savings over a decade.
According to Pentagon informants, Derek Chollet and John Conger, operations at the UK’s Mildenhall, Alconbury, and Molesworth airbases will close. These actions were the result of the European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) process, and are expected to save the Defense Department $500 million a year.
For the past 70 years, Lajes Field on Terceira has been one of seven main operating military bases under US Air Forces in Europe providing refueling and other support to US military, NATO aircraft and crewmembers transiting over the Atlantic. The Lajes Field hosts a civilian airport which shares its runway with the Portuguese aviation.
The Azores (population 250,000) is a region of Portugal composed of nine islands. The archipelago discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, became an Autonomous Region of Portugal in 1976. The government of the Autonomous Region of the Azores includes the Legislative Assembly, composed of 57 elected deputies, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term; the Regional Government and Presidency, with parliamentary legitimacy, composed of a President, a Vice-President and seven Regional Secretaries responsible for the Regional Government executive operations. The Autonomous Region of the Azores is represented in the Council of Ministers of the Central Government by a representative appointed by the President of Portugal. Vasco Cordeiro, 41, the leader of the Socialist Party (PS) in the Azores, was sworn Regional President of the Government of the Azores on October 14, 2012.