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Lajes Field

In an interview with Bloomberg on 12 October 2016, Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that China was likely to use the Lajes Field air base on the island of Terceira. The islands are "very important both logistically in the Atlantic Ocean but also in terms of technology and research, in the field of climate change and deep water research," Antonio Costa said. He added that while Portugal, which is a member of NATO, would continue to honor its defense pact with the US, he respected Washington's decision to reduce its military presence on the islands. Antonio Costa said that this was a good opportunity to establish a base for scientific research on the islands, that's why he was ready to consider pertinent proposals by anyone, including China. "It'd be a huge waste not to use that infrastructure. We need to reuse that infrastructure, and if you are not going to use it for military purposes, why not for scientific research?" he asked.

Antnio Costa admitted in Macau that the airbase Lajes can be used by China if the United States chose not to extend the exclusivity agreement, but only for scientific purposes. The Prime Minister, in his interview with Bloomberg in Macau, stressed, however, that "the military use of the base is not on the table, which is on the table is to reuse the infrastructure for research purposes."

Some local elites and US Congressman of Portuguese descent, Devin Nunes, were quick to criticize the Prime Minister. "Effectively we are divesting from billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure at Lajes Field that is likely to end up in the Chinese government's possession," Nunes wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, obtained by Sputnik Brazil.

This possibility had been admitted by Congressman Devin Nunes at the end of September 2016, as told the Lusa news agency. "How many in Congress have warned in the past, several Chinese high-representatives visited the Azores in recent years. I know now that China sent a delegation of about 20 representatives, all fluent in Portuguese, a research trip that lasted weeks and culminating in the Prime Minister's visit, Li Keqiang," revealed Devin Nunes in a letter sent to Ashton Carter, US secretary of defense. Still at the end of September, the communication agency Politico gave prominence to this approach between Portugal and China, speaking of the threat that the use of the Lajes Air Base by Beijing could pose to the United States. The title was paradigmatic: "Chinese Scale in the Atlantic worries Washington."

The newspaper Pblico recalled successive Chinese delegations travel to Lajes Air Base. From 2012 until 2016 there had been three visits by senior representatives of the Chinese state to Terceira Island. First, in 2012, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and a retinue of over one hundred people made a five-hour layover in Lajes. The same happened in 2014, this time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met with the then deputy prime minister Portuguese, Paulo Portas. Then it was the turn of Augusto Santos Silva, Minister of Foreign Affairs, received on Terceira Li Keqiang, Chinese Prime Minister, for two days.

The trade press had recorded the signals of interest and note that in addition to the expansion that has occurred in the South China Sea, where some reefs had been adapted to serve as air bases, Beijing had looked with interest to the North Atlantic. The recent free trade agreement with Iceland - which was the first European country to do so - as an example, and opened doors for the use of Icelandic ports to new polar route, which had been exploited by China.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank, placed emphasis on US security, noting that the distance between the Azores and New York is shorter than between Pearl Harbor and Los Angeles. "The Chinese never go to call military base. It is not part of their lexicon. The question is whether or not to make the Lajes military base," he explains, arguing this is part of the expansionist policy of Beijing that since this year began construction of a naval base in Djibouti, a small country in northeast Africa.

On 08 January 2015, the US Department of Defense announced the consolidation of some U.S. infrastructure in Europe, including the return of 15 sites to their host nations. As a result of this announcement, DoD is to streamline operations and property at Lajes Field. This will include reducing active duty, civilian personnel and contract providers by two-thirds. A number of the buildings at Lajes will also be returned to Portugal.

A bill was introduced 15 April 2014 in the House of Representatives, by Portuguese American Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), proposing to relocate AFRICOMs headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany, to the continental United States, with the provision that Lajes Air Field, on Terceira, Azores, be made into AFRICOMs forward operating base. In a hearing in the House of Representatives, before the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Nunes stated: In conjunction with the transfer, the Lajes Field air base should be designated as AFRICOMs forward operating base. Located on Portugals Azores island chain in mid-Atlantic, Lajes would be an exceptional staging ground for troop movements and training. Crucially, terrorist hot-spots in western Africa can all be reached from Lajes in less than five hours with few if any over-flight concerns, and ten of the eighteen African counties that hold State Department Travel Warnings can be reached within six hours. Lajes Field is Portuguese Air Base (PAB) No. 4, where the 65th Air Base Wing is stationed by agreement with the Republic of Portugal. Lajes Field is the home of all U.S. Air Force, Army, and Navy military forces in the Azores. In 1953, the U.S. Forces Azores Command was organized as subordinate Unified Command under the Command-in-Chief Atlantic. In peacetime, the U.S. Forces Commander (COMUSFORAZ) is assisted by a small joint staff responsible for contingency planning.

The Commander is the local representative for the U.S. Ambassador to Portuguese military and Civil authorities concerning all military activities in the Azores. In wartime, the Commander assumes operational control of all U.S. military forces in the Azores and its adjacent waters. The command mission would be to support NATO forces in the area, to assist in providing local defense, if requested, and to protect and evacuate U.S. civilians, if necessary.

The Air Force mission is primarily airlift support. The Army mission is to provide logistic support of goods to the installation. The Field is the headquarters site for the United States Forces Azores (USFORAZORES), a sub-unified command (composed of Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel), under the Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Command (USA), and the 65 ABW under the Air Combat Command. Although USFORAZORES and the 65 ABW are distinct organizations with separate channels within the Department of Defense, both are concurrently commanded by a Colonel, the senior military commander in the Azores archipelago. An Air Force Colonel serves concurrently as USFORAZORES Chief of Staff and 65 ABW Commander.

The Azores is comprised of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic, 950 miles from Lisbon, Portugal and 1,200 miles from the U.S. coastline. The U.S. has maintained a military presence for over 60 years in the Azores. The U.S. Consulate, established in 1795, is the oldest continuously operating U.S. Consulate in the world.

Throughout its history, the Lajes Air Base has played a critical role in a number of operations -- most notably providing the United States with the strategic position to counter German U-Boats in World War II, which had a major positive impact on the Allied war effort. In recent years, the U.S. presence played a direct role in the Berlin Airlift and was the site of the meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Aznar and Portuguese Prime Minister Barroso at the outset of the Iraq War.

Lajes Field is the largest runway in Europe at 10,800 feet long and 300 feet wide. It can support any commercial or military aircraft in the U.S. or NATO fleet and is commonly known as the airstrip in the middle of the Atlantic. Lajes also serves as the second largest fuel storage facility for the United States Air Force, after Guam.

The primary mission of Lajes is to support moving personnel, aircraft and supplies "to and from the fight." There were 14,900 aircraft that landed at Lajes in FY08. This includes both military and commercial flights from all nations. The U.S. and Portuguese run a joint 24-hour tower, which is important to the base's mission as an emergency landing site. The base also served as an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle and participated in regular training to support this mission. In addition, Lajes provides communications support to the National Command Authority, as well as senior USG civilian and military officials while transiting the Atlantic Ocean. Lajes provides this communications coverage, both backup and primary, extending from the Central US to Eastern Europe.

Lajes Field was activated in 1943 when the British obtained permission to construct an airfield on Terceira Island. In late 1943, the United States began stationing personnel with the British. The United States Military Transport Command, later called the Military Airlift Command (MAC), began occupancy on Lajes Field in 1944. The Military Airlift Command became a specified command in February 1977. In July 1992, Military Airlift Command was re-designated as Air Mobility Command (AMC). On 1 October 1993, Lajes Field transferred to Air Combat Command (ACC). An Interim Portuguese-American agreement on US usage of Lajes Field was completed in May 1946 and the formal accord was signed in 1948.

In February 1953, the 1605th Air Base Wing of the Military Airlift Command was established, and on 1 January 1982 it was changed to 1605th Military Airlift Support Wing (MASW). In January 1992, the 1605th Military Airlift Support Wing was re-designated as the 606th Military Airlift Support Wing. On June 1, 1992 the wing was re-designated as the 65th Support Wing. In July 1993, it was re-designated again as the 65th Air Base Wing.

Despite reductions over the years, the United States military remains one of the largest employers in the Azores and it is the single largest employer on the island of Terceira. These numbers have steadily decreased from a recent high in 1990 of 1,900 U.S. personnel and 1,345 Portuguese personnel and a low in 1998 of 610 Portuguese. The local population on the island of Terceira is 68,000 and 250,000 for all nine islands, thus staffing changes at the airbase are an important issue to the local population and government and any proposed reduction is a source of friction in the U.S. -- Portugal relationship.

Although Lajes Field has a number of good facilities, the base population and space limits the offerings in the commissary and Base Exchange. Other base facilities include a laundry/dry cleaner, chapel, education center, library, post office, radio/television station, movie theater, clinic, and dental clinic. Emergency medical needs are handled through the Portuguese hospital in Angra or through the medical aerovac system. Because medical and dental care is limited, it is highly recommended that educators have all necessary medical tests and dental work completed before arriving in the Azores. Recreational facilities include several well lighted tennis courts, racquetball courts, gymnasium with weight room, bowling alley, softball fields, skating rink, outdoor pool, youth center, hobby shops, and an 18-hole golf course not far from base. Opportunities exist to join several clubs that are affiliated with the base.

Wind and rain are considered "trademarks" of the Azores though the climate is mild. Storms pass through fairly frequently during the winter months, but there are also periods of beautiful weather during that time. For example, the golf course does not close during the winter, though there are times when it is preferable to stay in the clubhouse. The summer months are quite pleasant with lows in the 60's and highs in the 70's to lower 80's. Winter temperatures are usually in the lower 50's to 60's. Only rarely does the temperature dip below 45. The winter months have the strongest winds, often up to and beyond 75 MPH.

The Azores are a group of nine islands, spread out over some 340 miles, located in the North Atlantic Ocean about 2,200 miles east of New York City and approximately 850 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal. The total land area is 922 square miles or roughly equivalent to three-fourths the size of Rhode Island. The islands range in size from 297 square miles--Sao Miguel, to seven square miles--Corvo.

Lajes Field is located on the northeast tip of Terceira. The island measuring roughly 12 miles by 20 miles, is somewhat oval in shape and is almost entirely bordered by high cliffs. Terceira is the third largest of the islands. There are 2 communities on the island, with populations of approximately 22,000 and 12,000 as well as many small villages.

The only beach is a short, sandy strip bordering Praia Bay about three miles from the field. Except for the towns and hamlets, the land is broken up into small plots of cultivated ground by stone fences and narrow, winding roads which crisscross the island. The hilly terrain is dominated by volcanic ranges which are covered with lush, green vegetation. Innumerable stone walls set off small farm plots throughout the island. The farmers clear their fields of volcanic rock, which is then used for building farm structures. The islands contain spectacular scenes of emerald green "carpets" draped over volcanic mountains, covered by a "net" of rock walls. Flowers are abundant, and the seascape is ever present. It is not uncommon for someone to be heard saying that Terceira bears a distinct resemblance to Ireland.

The two largest communities are Angra do Heroismo and Praia da Vitoria. The latter is about three miles from Lajes Field and has a population of about 9,000. Angra do Heroismo, the central district's capital city, is approximately 13 miles from Lajes Field and has a population of approximately 24,000.

As an outpost of Portuguese power, by which it could protect lines of communication to the newly discovered land in America, and serve as a stopover for supplies to the Portuguese vessels sailing the Atlantic, the Azores have played an important part in the history of Portugal and the world. They became increasingly important during World War II because of their geographical position between Europe and North America. Using the isles as a mid-Atlantic refueling station, air transports were able to reduce round-trip flying time from the United States to Africa from 70 to 40 hours. During the latter part of the war, air bases were located on Santa Maria and Terceira. It was the "Grand Central Station" of the Air Force, serving the American European Theater with as many as 900 aircraft and 13,000 crew members and passengers passing through the archipelago in a single month. When the British left Terceira in 1946, the United States moved its military operations from Santa Maria to Lajes Field. Since then, the American presence has remained as a result of periodically negotiated agreements between the United States and Portugal.

The nine islands of the Azores are an autonomous region of Portugal. The regional autonomy is; however, exercised within the sovereignty of the Portuguese Republic. The National Government is responsible, for example, for matters of defense, foreign affairs, and fiscal policy. The regional Government of the Azores is composed of a president and 5 functional secretaries. It develops economic and budgetary proposals and performs a public administrative role. The Minister of the Republic, chosen by the Portuguese Prime Minister and appointed by the President of the Republic, represents Portuguese sovereignty in the Azores. The Minister performs a coordination role between the regional and central governments.

Dairy farming is the main industry in the Azores archipelago. Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, ducks and chickens are also raised. Agriculture and fishing are main occupations on the islands and an important factor in the local economy. The main crops on the island are tobacco, rye, clover, wheat, corn, beans, tea, grapes, chickery, bananas, and pineapples. Almost every rural and many urban families have vegetable gardens. Whaling was the oldest industry in the islands, but whaling is now forbidden by the regional law. Many tools, utensils, and farm implements are local products and are handmade. Embroidery and weaving are traditional handicrafts. The Azoreans are highly skilled craftsmen and their products reflect the skill, ingenuity, and artistic tastes of the people.

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