You’ve got to feel for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Whenever he’d testify on Capitol Hill, lawmakers would lob verbal hand grenades at him, asking about a factory or base in vital to their constituents, if not national security. “Let me begin by saying,” he’d tell them, “you can’t view the Defense Department budget as a jobs program.”
But now that he’s flying around Europe on his last trip as U.S. defense chief, he took the same kind of fire Tuesday in Portugal.
That’s because the U.S. military’s presence at Lajes Field — what Portugal calls Air Base No. 4 — in the Azores is shrinking dramatically. Planned cuts there will save the Pentagon an estimated $350 million over the coming decade. Once a bustling base that serviced hundreds of U.S. bombers, fighters and tankers, the U.S. now plans to cut its 1,100-strong workforce at least in half by late 2014 as far fewer planes utilize the field.
And some 700 of those workers are Portuguese.
So much of Panetta’s press conference Tuesday in Lisbon, 1,000 miles from Lajes, dealt with the planned drawdown:
Portuguese Defense Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco (through translator): …Concerning Lajes, I was — I expressed my — the Portuguese position, which we had already referred to in the communique, when the United States reduced its troop — and the situation that causes much concern to the Portuguese government, particularly because of the impact that it will have in the Azores and because the situation must make us mitigate the situation.
I explained to Mr. Leon Panetta the delicacy and importance to work together in order to mitigate the consequences of this situation and to lessen the impact on — in the region of the Azores. In concluding, this meeting was a very important stage in the work as allies and partners in our work to reinforce and strengthen our relationship…
Panetta: …As the war in Afghanistan draws to a close, the minister and I also discussed how to build on our close defense relationship even as both of our nations deal with steep fiscal challenges. In the United States, those challenges, just as in Portugal and in other countries, have forced us to make some difficult decisions with regards to our defense budget. Those include decisions to reduce the size of our military and to adjust our global force structure. We were presented by Congress in the Budget Control Act a number of $487 billion to reduce the defense budget over 10 years, and we have implemented a strategy to accomplish that.
As a result of these kinds of changes, we’ve made clear that there would be an impact in terms of the tempo of operations at Lajes Air Base. But I want you to know — and I said this directly to the minister, and I say it to the Portuguese people and to the people of the Azores — we will do everything we can to minimize the impact and the hardship to that community and, indeed, we will use this as an opportunity to build an even stronger mil-to-mil relationship between the United States and Portugal.
Today I made clear to the minister that I am fully committed to work with him and the local community to be able to mitigate the impact of this decision with the local community. That effort is going to be directed along three tracks.
First, let me make clear that the United States military is committed to Lajes Air Base. This is an important air base for us. It has important airlift capabilities. It will remain a vital part of our global forward posture. We will need to continue to make use of this important base.
As a result, we’ll do everything possible to try to lessen the economic impact of the reduction in tempo. We’re committed to working with the local community to provide aid and maintain a strong relationship that we have built over the years.
Let me say to the people of the Azores that support that base, we deeply thank them and are indebted to them for their continuing support of that base. They have been loyal, they have been hardworking, and they have been very dependable. And we thank them for that.
Recognizing the concerns that the minister made, we have delayed the transition of that reduction to October of 2014. We will maintain, in addition, a 24/7 fire and emergency services there and we are committed to a 3-to-1 ratio of employees from the local community. For every one that the United States employs, we will employ three of the local community with regards to jobs.
A second area of focus will be to explore opportunities to expand our trade and business relationship. I’m pleased that the United States European Command will host a delegation of business executives next month, which will include a visit to the Azores that may provide opportunities for expanded economic development there…
Question from Portuguese Reporter: I would like to ask this question of both of you. Mr. Panetta, what type of opportunities — investment opportunities — is the United States available to compensate the reduction in troops in the Lajes base?
Panetta: The purpose of the visit by these business executives is to determine what areas we can develop in terms of investment to provide added jobs and opportunities for that area. This has been an effective group of business executives, by the way. This is — I’ve worked with BENS (Business Executives for National Security) — they’re called the BENS group. They’ve been very involved in supporting our military. And they’ve been very involved in helping to support our allies, as well.
And so we ask them to go there and to look at, what are the economic opportunities that can be developed for the future? It’s important. I mean, they’re — the Azores is beautiful. There are a lot of opportunities that we think can be developed there. And it could be a real investment for the future, so let’s wait and see what their recommendations are, but I think it’s an important step in the right direction.
Aguiar-Branco (through translator): Thank you for your question. I had the opportunity to tell the defense secretary that there are two important areas, that the timetable for the reduction of the U.S. forces in Lajes, that this happened the later the better, and that the timeline and criteria be as favorable to the workers and the region as possible, be it the reduction and the planning in this area.
On the one hand, the government will be able to mitigate the effects of this retreat and to study the possibility of structural funds to support what is happening now in the island. It will also permit us to work in the bilateral relationship in order to find other projects and alternatives for — to mitigate the situation.
I would also like to point out the importance — the importance of the visit in February of a group of businessmen — U.S. businessmen linked to the defense area to evaluate and assess the opportunities — business opportunities that are now open. These two reasons — this will be a way to reinforce the cooperation, strategic cooperation between the United States and Portugal, and to allow — to allow projects to mitigate the situation and the situation in the local economy.
And what if none of this works out?
Well, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spent four hours touring Lajes after landing on its 10,865-foot long runway last summer. His unofficial visit was mysteriously described as a “technical” stop as he returned to Beijing from a South American tour.
And you thought China was only interested in the Pacific.