Forward Operating Location Aruba
Reina Beatrix IAP
Aruba, a parched speck of an island off the coast of Venezuela had guaranteed sunshine and was blessed with beaches that made you say 'ahhh.' Tourism was the big business there and it had served in a flavorsome double scoop of beach bunnies from North America and Holland, and Latin coastal coasters, nearly all of them on circuit-breaker trips to pep up winter suntans, prop at the poolside bar and try their luck at the casinos. Although large-scale tourism dominated the island (read: luxury resorts from here to sunset), there were still undeveloped areas on the exposed northern coast and much of the interior was inhabited by nothing more substantial than goats and contorted divi-divi trees. In this region, the triple whammy of a dry climate, salt-loaded seaspray, and relentless trade winds had created a wonderfully surreal landscape with more than a passing resemblance to the images Pathfinder sent back to earth from Mars.
Tourism was the mainstay of the Aruban economy, although offshore banking and oil refining and storage were also important. The rapid growth of the tourism sector by 1995 had resulted in a substantial expansion of other activities. Construction had boomed, with hotel capacity 5 times the 1985 level. In addition, the reopening of the country's oil refinery in 1993, a major source of employment and foreign exchange earnings, had further spurred growth. Aruba's small labor force and less than 1 percent unemployment rate had led to a large number of unfilled job vacancies, despite sharp rises in wage rates in recent years.
As part of the return of the Panama Canal Zone to the Panamanian government, the United States ceased counterdrug operations from Howard Air Force Base on 1 May 1999. To permit the United States to continue to mount counterdrug operations close to the drug producing or source zones and illicit drug transshipment or transit zones, the US Southern Command, which was responsible for counterdrug operations within the region, sought usable airfields. The United States subsequently secured 10-year agreements for the use of 4 airfields for counterdrug activities. However, each airfield required some construction to support a designated mix of aircraft. In the spring of 1999, the Defense Department and the US Customs Service began conducting limited counterdrug operations from airfields on Aruba and Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles.
Unlike the Department of Defense's forward operating location on Curacao, the forward operating location at Aruba was designed to support interagency efforts, primarily the US Customs Service's operations in the South American source zone and the Caribbean transit zone. According to officials at the US Southern Command, Aruba could accommodate 2 medium-sized P-3 aircraft and 3 small-sized tracker aircraft when fully operational, a state expected in December 2000 to be achieved in late 2002. US Customs officials said that the P-3 aircraft would conduct airborne early warning and tracking operations mainly in the source zone. At least one tracker aircraft would be on alert at all times to track potential traffickers over the Caribbean Sea. Customs aircraft had been operating from the site since 28 April 1999, and shared parking spaces and other facilities with commercial aircraft.
Of the estimated $10.2 million total construction costs as of December 2000, the Department of Defense would use about $8.8 million to construct a new ramp, taxiway, and rinse facility for the use of US Customs aircraft. The Department would also spend about $1.5 million to construct a new hangar and squadron operations facility. These costs could increase if Customs assumed a larger role in tracking traffickers and required additional hangar and operations space. The Department of Defense and Customs would not need lodging facilities because Aruba had an ample supply of hotels. The Air Force estimates in December 2000 that it would spend about $1.9 million in FY01 for base operations. The Air Force expects to maintain a permanent staff of about 3 personnel to operate and maintain the site. Department of Defense property at FOL Aruba subsequently came to consist of a single building.
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