KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – Amid preparations for a major drawdown that will save the Air Force an estimated $35 million a year, it’s still business as usual at Lajes Field in Portugal, say base officials, at least for now.
“We’re still talking months out,” Col. Chris Bargery, 65th Air Base Wing commander at Lajes, said, referring to when changes reflecting the Air Force’s intended smaller footprint on Lajes might begin.
The goal is to remain “a strong and functioning air base wing right up until the summer of 2014 when we make the change” and become either an air base group or an air base squadron, Bargery said in an interview Monday.
In announcing the anticipated cuts last week, Pentagon officials said the base’s workforce will shrink by at least half. The base has about 1,100 personnel, including about 700 local nationals. The reductions are part of Defense Department cost-cutting measures worldwide, Pentagon officials have said, and the Lajes drawdown is expected to save the Air Force about $35 million a year. It’s the biggest Air Force drawdown announced for Europe since the Pentagon said earlier this year its strategic focus was shifting more toward the Pacific region.
A team from U.S. Air Forces in Europe is at Lajes this week to identify which military and civilian positions will remain to maintain scaled-back operations on Lajes after 2014, Bargery said. That process is expected to take a few weeks, he said.
The “scope of the new mission is going to drive those numbers,” he said.
U.S. civilian and local national positions will be reduced during fiscal 2014, base officials said, with wing leadership planning a phased approach to the cuts.
Long described as “a crossroads in the Atlantic,” Lajes is located in the Azores islands, about 2,200 miles from Washington, D.C. The only military air field in the mid-Atlantic, it provides a secure location for DOD and NATO aircrews to rest and for aircraft to refuel and receive any needed maintenance. The base supports about 600 U.S. military aircraft a year — one to two per day, on average, base officials said. Military fighters, cargo planes and other aircraft flying to and from the States for deployments to the Middle East, for training exercises with NATO allies in Europe or for other missions, transit through Lajes.
The Air Force, which shares a control tower and the Lajes runway with the Portuguese air force and a civilian terminal, also supports commercial aircraft operations at Lajes.
The U.S. Air Force mission won’t change, base officials said, but personnel reductions will curb its 24-hour operating hours.
“We won’t be set up to receive those aircraft around the clock, 24-7,” Bargery said. The future window of operations will likely range from eight to 12 hours a day, he said. That change will require more advance planning and coordination from aircraft looking to make a pit stop at Lajes, Bargery said.
Then there’s in-flight emergencies: “We do catch a few that come in here unplanned,” he said, whether it’s because of a mechanical problem or an issue with a passenger, for example. Lajes will still receive those aircraft, Bargery said.
While all families are expected to depart Lajes by summer of 2014, as airmen’s assignments go to 12-month unaccompanied tours, Bargery said that transition will take some time. Families are still moving to the island, he said, adding that some time next year, the assignment system should change.
“We know we are going to have families here – my family included – right up until the end,” he said.