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.
António 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 Público 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 AFRICOM’s headquarters from Stuttgart, Germany, to the continental United States, with the provision that Lajes Air Field, on Terceira, Azores, be made into AFRICOM’s 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 AFRICOM’s forward operating base. Located on Portugal’s 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.
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.
International telecommunications are provided by satellite services and a single, submarine fiber optic cable system (SFOC) called, “Columbus III," installed in 1999. The telecommunications infrastructure of the Azores does not lend itself to being a robust or suitable telecommunications hub. An analysis of the telecommunications infrastructure of the Azores identified several key reasons that any location in the Azores would not be suitable or robust to serve as a DISA telecommunications hub.
Satellite bandwidth limitations and high latency (signal delays) typical of satellite systems - satellites cannot provide the required bandwidth for transporting high volumes of data, interactive video or imaging in a cost-effective effective manner; all satellite transmissions exhibit transmission delays due nearly 53,000 round trip miles the satellite signal must travel; and the satellite signal is also susceptible to adverse weather conditions, such as tropical storms and hurricanes.
Only one international cable system landing in the Azores to provide fiber optic cable international connectivity. While an inter-island group of fiber optic cables provides a measure of diversity for communications within the Azores, one or two strategically located cable cuts on Columbus III could isolate the island from all but the lesser-performing satellite services, There are no proposed or planned additional international cable systems for the Azores to improve diversity and improve the probability of telecommunications survivability. The cost of adding an additional cable system is not likely to be economically justifiable due to the small size of the local economy and limited market potential.
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