A bipartisan group of lawmakers is concerned that the Defense Department's plans to reduce the military and civilian personnel at Lajes Field in the Azores will harm U.S. relations with Portugal, the host nation.
"We are nervous about how the Portuguese are going to react because this has become a political issue for them and – bottom line is – it harms them greatly," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told Air Force Times in a Jan. 23 interview.
About 650 military personnel and their families are based at Lajes Field, which is home to the 65th Air Base Wing, which helps U.S. and allied aircraft on long flights downrange or elsewhere. Since 2003, aircraft that have stopped over at Lakes Field include C-17s, C-130s, F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, according to the base's website.
As part of U.S. efforts to consolidate military bases in Europe, the Defense Department plans to reduce active-duty service members, civilian personnel and contractors at Lajes Field by about 62 percent, according to a statement from U.S. Air Forces in Europe to Air Force Times.
"Airmen and their families are being moved through natural attrition based on the permanent change of station (PCS) cycle while in-bound personnel are receiving 'unaccompanied' orders,'" the statement says. "This transition to unaccompanied personnel will be complete by September 2015."
But Portugal objected to an earlier Air Force effort to move between 400 and 500 military personnel and their families off Lajes Field because they worried that the drawdown would hurt the local economy. As a result, in 2013 the Defense Department delayed any personnel reductions at the base for two years.
While reducing personnel at Lajes Field may make financial sense for the U.S, it does not make economic sense for Portugal because the base makes "the majority of the economy" for the local islands, said Nunes, a member of the Congressional Portuguese American Caucus.
Nunes, whose family emigrated from the Azores to California, is worried that the Portuguese may limit U.S. access to Lajes Field or tell the U.S. to demolish inactive parts of the base rather than accept a nominal U.S. presence there.
"They've been saying for three years now, since this first announced: 'This doesn't work for us; you can't just leave us an empty base sitting there with fuel tanks and munitions stores and all this stuff,'" Nunes said in a Jan. 23 interview. "I don't know if you've seen the base; it's huge. So they've said, 'Look, if you're going to do that, you're going to have to come in and tear this out."
U.S. and Portuguese officials are expected to meet in February to discuss the latest proposed personnel reductions at Lajes Field, Nunes said. Lawmakers are waiting on the results of that meeting before deciding whether to take legislative action to resolve the issue, he said.
"We're going to have decide as members of Congress: Do we need to step in and tell DOD, 'Well, since you didn't solve the problem, here's what you're going to do,'" he said. "We don't want to do that, but we're prepared to do it."
In April, Nunes introduced a bill in April that would have moved the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response from Moron Air Base, Spain, to Lajes Field. The bill did not receive enough support for a vote in either chamber.
"I think if the secretary of defense gets involved in this and the Congress gets involved, we can come up with a solution that will make everybody happy," Nunes he said.
The State Department did not respond to questions from Air Force Times about the upcoming meeting with the Portuguese government on Lajes Field.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said Lajes Field remains "an important location" for the U.S., its allies and other authorized aircraft traveling to and from the U.S.
"We consulted closely with our allies on our specific plans and the broader security picture," Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman said in a Jan. 27 email to Air Force Times. "Portugal and the U.S. have an enduring partnership and together have enhanced NATO's interoperability for ready forces."
The interest in keeping U.S. relations with Portugal healthy spans both sides of the aisle. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., is following the Lajes Field issue.
Reed, who sits on the aAppropriations, aArmed sServices and bBanking committees, is also co-chairman of the Friends of Portugal Caucus in the Senate. Census data from 2010 showed that Rhode Island is the state with the highest per capita percentage of Americans of Portuguese descent, said Reed's spokesman Chip Unruh.
"We have a strong, strategic partnership with Portugal that dates back to the 18th century and we want to see that relationship continue," Unruh said in an email to Air Force Times. "Senator Reed recently met with the Portuguese Ambassador and expressed his hope that something positive comes out of the bilateral meeting in Lisbon next month and that both sides have to bring concrete ideas to the table to move forward."
Meanwhile, Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., supports moving U.S. Africa Command's headquarters from Germany to the U.S., which could save more money than the proposed personnel reductions at Lajes Field.
Lajes Field gives the U.S. the ability to launch operations against al-Qaida and other terrorist and criminal groups in Africa, which is a region of great strategic importance, Keating told Air Force Times in a Jan. 14 interview.
"Our relationship and history with the Portuguese government is one of cooperation," said Keating, whose district is a large Portuguese-American population. "Our requests have never been denied. So when we have to be flexible and swift for anything strategically, we have that history that's so strong."
The proposed personnel reductions at Lajes Field would essentially make the base "non-functional" at a time when drug cartels are merging with terrorist groups in Africa, Keating said.
"It's an asset for us that we should not be diminishing right now," he said. "We could lose it. Once it's gone, the Portuguese government is not in any position to have to give it back to us."