Lajes air base on Terceira Island, Azores: Image: António Araújo/ Lusa
Lajes air base on Terceira Island, Azores: Image: António Araújo/ Lusa

Azores air base strategic to US, may see boost in assets – US commander

War in Ukraine seems to have turned tide on US ‘downsizing’ at the base

The US commander of Lajes Air Base, in the Azores, showed today that perceptions are have started to change with regard to the US downsizing of its presence on Terceira island.

“It’s not something that will happen overnight”, Brian Hardeman told journalists today. “But it is something the leaders are considering”.

Since the downsizing process in 2015/ 16, military personnel have been stationed in Lajes for one-year commissions, without the right to paid family accompaniment. The Air Force is now considering reversing that decision, says Hardeman.

Right now, there are 164 US military personnel stationed at Lajes, supported by 420 Portuguese civilians

“In the future, based on the missions, that number can increase. Everything depends on how the missions are defined”, said the commander.

Nothing is “clearly defined” at the moment, but “strategic competition is a ‘monster’, which requires a lot of evaluation and analysis.

“We want to make sure that we are doing our best to accomplish that task. We don’t want to do anything that is premature, that could disrupt relations between Portugal and the United States, by doing something that would force us to step back,” he explained.

“In the future, we are considering the best way to bring the families and change the commissions from 12 to 24 months (…)”

What is without doubt is that the base “continues to be strategic for the United States.

“The United States and Portugal are basically best friends and we want to make sure that we continue to capitalise on that relationship. We are definitely looking at repositioning and potentially bringing in additional resources, whether manpower or otherwise, to help with future missions, which are still being defined,” he said.

The commander of the 65th Air Base Group was speaking as the island hosts a military exercise with four KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelling aircraft.

The four aircraft and a Boeing C-17 have brought to Terceira approximately 300 military personnel from New Hampshire, who are staying at the base, to take part in an exercise lasting about four days.

“They chose us because of our great location. They are doing an exercise, which they could do anywhere, but I am happy that we can receive them here, to allow them to train and execute their mission,” said the commander.

The KC-46 Pegasus, the most modern refueller in the US Air Force, is capable of refuelling a C17 aircraft or 10 to 12 fighter jets in minutes during flight and can also be refuelled in the air, explains Lusa.

Even so, the US commander considered that Lajes continues to play an important role in supporting aircraft that cross the Atlantic – not least because it has “the second largest runway” in bases where the United States has a presence in Europe, “48% of the fuel capacity and 21% of the parking space”.

“The Lajes base is absolutely strategic. What we can do from this location is practically unique in the Atlantic and in the African region,” stressed Hardeman.

And it is an “optimal location to give support to Ukraine, if so decided”.

“Lajes is a great location if our leadership determines that we need to provide some additional help from any base we have on the European stage,” he said.

“The Lajes base is always open to welcome whatever is determined. We can support Ukraine if that decision is made,” he reiterated

As for Russian submarine surveillance in the Atlantic, Commander Hardeman neither confirmed nor denied it, saying only that the US air force is “always keeping an eye on everything”.

“The navy decides the best way to maintain surveillance of Russian activity. The Lajes base is a great location because of our fueling capacity, parking space and our ability to accommodate a lot of people,” he told Lusa.

Back in 2016, when the US began its withdrawal from Lajes, there was even a moment when the Chinese were interested in taking over the base.

Source material: LUSA