Over Thanksgiving, I briefly visited the Azores, an archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic, which is home to Lajes Field, a Portuguese Air Force Base that is also home to the U.S. Air Force’s 65th Air Base Wing.
The United States has had almost a century of interaction with the Azores. During World War I, the U.S. Navy briefly occupied Ponta Delgada from which it flew hydroplanes to help spot German submarines. With the end of the war, the American contingent returned home, but various Azores airfields served as waypoints as cross-Atlantic aviation developed.
During World War II, however, Lajes Field became a significant base under British control from that both U.S. and British planes flew missions to protect Atlantic shipping and the U.S. Navy also utilized it as a blimp waystation.
In 1946, Lajes reverted to Portuguese control, but Washington and Lisbon agreed that the United States could continue to utilize the field. With the creation of NATO, Lajes became Portugal’s greatest military asset and contribution to the alliance. By the 1950s, tanker aircraft at Lajes became important for aerial refueling for U.S. military aircraft and, as the Cold War solidified, the Azores became an important asset to enable U.S. forces better to track Soviet submarines and naval movements and, during the 1980s, Lajes also was home to an airborne command post for the commander of U.S. forces Europe. Lajes was also crucial to Operation Nickel Grass, the U.S. airlift to supply Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and as a way station as U.S. forces moved assets to the Persian Gulf to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Just days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was in the U.S.-run club house at Lajes Field that President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, and Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso met to cement the so-called “coalition of the willing.”
Needless to say, the Azores’ strategic location has been an asset to which generations of American policymakers were indifferent until a crisis struck at which point it became essential. At the same time, Lajes Field became an important symbol of the U.S.-Portugal relationship as generations of Portuguese on Terceira Island grew up working and living among Americans.
Today, however, Lajes Field has the atmosphere of a ghost town. Fewer than 200 American personnel remain stationed at Lajes. At lunch or dinner, the dining room hosts no more than a dozen people. Office and administrative buildings are well maintained but vacant. In the subdivisions closest to the base, only two or three townhouses are occupied along entire blocks. Last summer, the base school closed. While the purpose of Lajes was not to provide welfare to the Portuguese, the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. personnel has left the island in a crisis and looking for alternatives.
Here, China has offered to fill the gap. Three years ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a stopover in Terceira, an episode whose context author and longtime Asia expert Gordon Chang described:
On June 27, [2012,] a plane carrying Wen Jiabao made a “technical” stop on the island of Terceira, in the Azores…. Wen’s Terceira walkabout, which followed a four-nation visit to South America, largely escaped notice at the time, but alarm bells should have immediately gone off in Washington and in European capitals. For one thing, Wen’s last official stop on the trip was Santiago, the capital of Chile. Flights from Chile to China normally cross the Pacific, not the Atlantic, so there was no reason for his plane to be near the Azores. Moreover, those who visit the Azores generally favor other islands in the out-of-the-way chain. Terceira, however, has one big attraction for Beijing: Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility where Premier Wen’s 747 landed in June is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure. From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea. And China could target the American homeland. Lajes is less than 2,300 miles from New York, shorter than the distance between Pearl Harbor and Los Angeles.
Taxi drivers are still talking about the Chinese visit. The Chinese advance team hired 100 at rates far above normal just to sit at a staging area in case they were needed. Chinese officials rented out whole hotel floors and re-furnished them, in effect, renovating them for free as they left the upgrades behind.
While Terceira remains pro-American and locals understand the risks of a Chinese presence at the airfield, there is also a resignation that they may be given no choice should the White House and Pentagon continue their drawdown.
The airfield is not Terceira’s only asset, however, in which the Chinese have interest. Locals also describe growing Chinese interest to upgrade Praia da Vitória, the island’s main port, just a couple miles from the base. As the Chinese develop a blue water navy, a logistical hub in the Azores that would be upgraded under the guise of civilian traffic but to a standard that could accommodate Chinese naval vessels, cannot be dismissed.
Losing Lajes — especially to the Chinese — confirms cross-administration shortsightedness that increasingly puts North Atlantic and U.S. security at risk. Almost a decade ago, the Defense Department closed the U.S. Naval Air Station in Keflavik, Iceland. The Cold War was over, both the Pentagon and Langley insisted, ignoring both Russia’s military build-up and its reversion to a Cold War posture. The Keflavik base was once vital to secure shipping routes and trace Soviet submarines. Now, the United States has far fewer defenses even as Russia has upgraded its submarine fleet. To end the U.S. presence in Iceland was bad enough. The whole point of bases is to have them when you need them and, unlike many of the facilities the Pentagon maintains in Great Britain or Germany, the strategic location of Iceland and the Azores, means that any base closure means losing an asset that cannot be covered from a base relatively close by.
There is a remedy, however. For several years, the Pentagon has been considering where to locate a new intelligence complex, finally choosing Royal Air Force Croughton in England over Lajes Field. The Pentagon has suggested that locating the facility in the Azores rather than Great Britain would increase its cost by more than $1 billion, though the numbers suggest they have that calculation backwards. Not only does Lajes have many structures already standing that would otherwise need to be torn down, but also the cost-of-living is much less on Terceira than in the United Kingdom. Put aside widespread suspicion that European Command picked the United Kingdom over the Azores simply because most personnel rather live in the former. The simple fact is that maintaining the Azores as an asset — and denying it to the Chinese — makes long-term strategic sense. It’s long past time U.S. officials consider the forest rather than the trees when making such decisions. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) might be waging a one-man crusade to force the Pentagon to choose Lajes. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Sometimes, it’s healthy to allow common sense to triumph over bureaucratic inertia. It’s not just a matter of the intelligence center nor is it a question of duty to Portugal, an ally in need that stood by the United States when U.S. interests were at stake. Rather, it’s a recognition that the U.S. faces adversaries will seek advantage of any opportunity the U.S. presents. For the White House and the Pentagon to allow China a foothold in the North Atlantic would be beyond Beijing’s wildest dreams.