A F16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the Alabama Air National Guard's 187th Fighter Wing launches from Lajes Field in August during joint training with the Romanians. Operations at the Air Force installation will draw down in the coming years. (Tech. Sgt. Chenzira Mallory / Air Force)
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LISBON — The United States will delay for two years a planned reduction in military personnel stationed at a Portuguese air base in the Azores until 2014, as business leaders look for ways to mitigate the economic impact of the cuts.
While the U.S. Defense Department still intends to carry out the personnel reductions, it plans to maintain a presence at Lajes Field, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Jan. 15 briefing.
"We will do everything we can to minimize the impact [and] 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," he said.
U.S. European Command will host a delegation from the Business Executives for National Security trade group in the Azores next month to look for ways the United States can expand its trade and business relationship with Portugal.
Panetta said this visit could lead to "opportunities for expanded economic development" in the Atlantic islands, about 1,000 miles west of here.
About 650 U.S. military personnel and DoD civilians are based at Lajes. However, the Air Force announced in December that it would reduce that number due to budget cuts. At the time, the Air Force said 400 military personnel and 500 family members would leave the island airfield by the end of fiscal 2014.
As part of the move, the 65 Air Base Wing, the largest U.S. military organization in Portugal, is to become an air base group.
The reductions are expected to save the Air Force $35 million annually and $350 million over a decade, according to a senior defense official. The reductions, which were supposed to begin this year, now will not start until the fall of 2014.
The specific personnel being withdrawn from the base have not yet been determined, according to a defense official.
Despite the planned reductions, the Air Force will maintain a fire-and-rescue presence at the base and is "committed to a three-to-one ratio of employees from the local community," Panetta said.
The proposed force reductions at Lajes have not gone over well in Portugal, and were among the topics discussed by Panetta and Portuguese Defense Minister Josè Pedro Aguiar-Branco.
Aguiar-Branco, who appeared at the briefing alongside Panetta, called the planned reductions a "situation that causes much concern to the Portuguese government, particularly because of the impact that it will have in the Azores."
Panetta called Lajes, which often hosts aerial refueling tankers and other military aircraft, "an important air base for us," and said it would "remain a vital part of our global forward posture."