The Azores may be the most strategic islands of which most Americans have never heard. Over Thanksgiving, I visited this veritable paradise — green terraces, lava cliffs, medieval towns. Its location — almost 1,000 miles west of Lisbon and 2,750 miles east of Washington, D.C. — makes it crucial territory for monitoring and controlling Atlantic trade and sea lanes. During World War I, the US Navy stationed hydroplanes at Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island in order to help spot German submarines. Then, in World War II, both the Royal Air Force and US Navy made use of facilities on the Azores — especially Lajes Field — in order to protect Atlantic waters, re-supply, and conduct reconnaissance.
The Azores became increasingly important during the Cold War, both in defense of Atlantic waters and as a logistical hub. And the US Air Force brought them into service during emergencies, such as resupplying Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and sending forces and supplies into Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1991 liberation of Kuwait.
Lajes Field flightline with USAF KC-10As, KC-135Rs and USMC F/A-18Ds. Flickr.
Understandably, America’s presence on the islands has declined in recent years. However, efforts to reduce it, if not end America’s presence completely, are short-sighted. The Chinese government has made no secret of its desire to fill the vacuum left by the United States. Portugal may be a NATO member, but the Chinese would maintain plausible deniability and so would not build a military base outright. Rather, they would just upgrade their “commercial presence,” all the while having a presence at Lajes Field and upgrading the nearby port to military specifications. Residents, facing economic strains caused by the diminishing American presence, say they prefer Americans remain but would welcome any new investment to fill the gap if President Obama and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter determine that the United States Air Force should depart.
The irony seems to be that there is no reason why US forces should depart; quite the contrary, as the Pentagon determines where to locate a new NATO intelligence fusion center, Lajes Field seems to be the perfect option. It is centrally located. The intelligence community works around the clock, but analysts still need their sleep. It’s essential that any intelligence fusion cell be able to serve its customers in both Europe and the United States. The fact that the Azores is four hours ahead of Washington, D.C., and two hours behind both AFRICOM and EUCOM headquarters makes it geographically positioned to serve all its clients well.
At the same time, the facility is already built. Secure Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) exist, fiber optic cables have been laid, base housing, schools, and neighborhoods surrounding the facility look like they might have been transplanted from a southern California subdivision. US European Command and the US Air Force, however, never really considered Lajes for the new facility and have instead insisted to Congress that placing it in the United Kingdom would be far cheaper. That’s like saying that New York City is cheaper to live in than West Virginia. A quick look at the numbers shows that not only did the Pentagon’s number crunching not add up, but it bordered on fraud.
The problem seems to be, bizarrely, that Air Force and intelligence personnel prefer to live in the United Kingdom. It’s easier to take weekend trips to the continent, or catch a play in London’s West End. There are more fancy hotels and golf courses for temporary duty employees passing through. That should be no basis to make a decision, however, that costs US taxpayers more than $1 billion more and cedes a crucial geostrategic base to the Chinese. Hotel swimming pools should never Trump National Security.
What is happening in the Azores may not be the stuff of headlines, but when the crisis hits — and inevitably it will — historians may castigate Obama and Secretaries of Defense Chuck Hagel and Ashton Carter for a decision based on such shaky, and often fictional, data. Let us hope, for the sake of both National Security and financial prudence, that Congress will exert its oversight and investigate.
Source: New AEI Feed
Question for the Pentagon: Does lifestyle trump national security?