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US delays drawdown at Lajes Field, Panetta says

Members from the 65th Operations Support Squadron park incoming A-10C Thunderbolts II “Warthogs” from the 188th Fighter Wing, left and right, and the Baltimore-based 175th Wing, middle. Eighteen A-10s landed at the 65th Air Base Wing based as Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal, March 31, 2012.

LISBON, Portugal — The U.S. will delay a planned troop reduction from Lajes Field and send a business delegation to the Azores to look at potential opportunities for economic development to reduce the impact on the community, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday.

“The United States military is committed to Lajes air base. … it will remain a vital part of our global forward posture,” Panetta said in a joint press conference.

The Pentagon had announced in December that it will reduce the number of airmen in Lajes, with the end of the drawdown slated for August 2014. The end date now is being pushed to October 2014, a senior defense official said.

In December, Col. Chris Bargery, commander of the 65th Air Base Wing at Lajes, told Stars and Stripes the goal was to keep the air base wing functioning up to the deadline, then transition to either an air base group or air base squadron.

Lajes is in the Azores islands in the mid-Atlantic and provides a secure location for DOD and NATO aircrews to rest and for aircraft to refuel. The base supports about 600 military U.S. aircraft a year, according to base officials.

Once the transition is complete, the base will be reduced by at least half. Right now, Lajes has a workforce of about 1,100 – including about 700 local employees.

Panetta said Tuesday the Pentagon will keep a 3-to-1 hiring ratio, with three local employees for every one American.

The drawdown is expected to save $350 million over 10 years, the senior defense official said.

Panetta on Tuesday also visited Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, which moved to Lisbon from Naples, Italy, this summer. The command of 122 is about 40 percent American, but has representatives from 11 nations, said chief of staff Rear Adm. Mike Gilday.

hladj@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @jhlad

 

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