Forward Operating Location Curacao
Hato Navy Air Station
Curacao was famous for sparkling clean beaches, beautiful clear water, and friendly locals. Curaçao was a tangled plate of spaghetti western tossed down in the Caribbean Sea and garnished with a glob of Willemstad sophisti-sauce. The island's scrubby kunuku (countryside) was strewn with cacti, keening divi-divi trees, and lizards looking glibly at diving weirdos with oxygen strapped to their backs. The capital, Willemstad, managed to be both dinky and grand while serving up the food, shopping and slickness of a town much less manageable. Curaçao's beaches might be nubbled with coral or strewn with imported grains and the local liqueur, a first rate gut-rot, but the queen of the Netherlands Antilles more than made up for these niggles with high comfort levels, guaranteed balminess and a friendliness that constantly threatened to bubble over into a party.
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. The US shared space with the Royal Netherlands navy, marines, and air force, all of which had permanent facilities on Curacao, including the Hato Navy Air Station.
As part of the US military's pullout from Howard Air Force Base, Panama in April 1999, 6 C-130 and 4 F-16 aircraft and about 170 airmen assigned to the 24th Wing, and representing 2 Air Force flying missions, moved on 1 May 1999, respectively to airfields in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Curacao's Hato international airport. The E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System planes that were the heart of the counterdrug fight, and the KC-135 tankers, moved to MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. The rotartional deployment of F-15 and F-16 fighters that protect those AWACs, Operation Coronet Nighthawk, moved to 3 forward operating locations: the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curacao and Aruba, and Ecuador. The 3 bases were closer to South American drug-producing centers and Caribbean trafficking routes. In the mid-1990's, a yearly deployment of more than 30 Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve fighter units to Panama began to support counterdrug tasking Coronet Nighthawk. Subsequently Air National Guard F-16 jet fighters deployed in Curacao for Coronet Nighthawk counterdrug duty.
When Coronet Nighthawk moved to Hato International Airport in May 1999, the operation there Curacao was not yet as robust as it was in Panama, because the new facility was far smaller. The ramp and maintenance area, where the jets were parked and worked on, sat beside the civilian airport. A compact village of 12 canvas, air-conditioned tents, shaped like Quonset huts, served as the headquarters and the haven for the 8-member alert crews. Expansion of the runway and the building of a new ramp and hangar were planned to support the counter-drug mission. Even though it was estimated to take 3 years to complete, these renovations would alleviate the waiting time that was imposed on CNH due to Hato IAP air traffic.
Commander-in-chief, US Southern Command's (USCINCSO) implementation concept was a phased approach, including the requirement to operate from the FOLs in an expeditionary manner. However, such operations were not sustainable in the long term. Certain safety and infrastructure improvements were needed before commencing full-scale operations to maximize US use of these airfields. Still, construction was planned only where existing host-nation facilities were unavailable. For example, the US was planning for "expeditionary construction" of structures using concrete foundations and metal skin siding exteriors. All of this was designed to meet minimum requirements while minimizing costs. When the projects were completed, USCINCSO fully expected to replicate the level of detection and monitoring flown from Howard Air Force Base, without increasing costs or operational tempo of the services. As a result, significant construction efforts were made to expand the capabilities of FOL Curacao between 2000 and 2010.
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