Correction:

The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was the first Pentagon chief to visit Portugal in more than three decades. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Portugal for bilateral meetings in 2003.

Panetta reassures Portugal on Azores Islands after U.S. downsizes decades-old base there

RAFAEL MARCHANTE/REUTERS - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta listens to questions from journalists during a news conference at Sao Juliao fortress, on the outskirts of Lisbon, on Jan. 15, 2013.

LISBON — The Pentagon’s era of austerity is starting to pinch some remote corners of the globe, including a volcanic island in the mid-Atlantic.

The U.S. military has decided to greatly scale down Lajes Field, an air base in the Azores Islands that for decades has served as a refueling station and rest stop for long-haul flights. Almost 1,000 U.S. troops and their family members will come home by the end of next year, leaving behind a bare-bones crew to service the occasional flyby.

A lone cruising sailboat in the Azores, Portugal.

A lone cruising sailboat in the Azores, Portugal.

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The move will save an estimated $350 million over a decade, a tiny fraction of the $500 billion in cuts the Pentagon must make during that same period. But ripple effects are already being felt in the Azores, a Portuguese territory, where 700 civilians depend on the base for their livelihoods.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta got a polite earful Tuesday from the NATO ally, which pressed him to delay the drawdown as long as possible and to do whatever he could to save jobs.

Panetta agreed to delay the job losses until the end of 2014 and pledged that U.S. business executives would visit the Azores to suggest ideas for diversifying the economy.

“We will do everything we can to minimize the hardship and impact to that community,” he said at a news conference near Lisbon with Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco, Portugal’s defense minister.

But the episode encapsulated a conundrum facing the Pentagon: After years of imploring European allies not to slash their defense budgets, the United States is being forced to swallow its own cutbacks. As a result, the NATO alliance is facing a possible erosion of its military capabilities, with no one in a fiscal position to take up the slack.

The theme is playing out across Europe, including in Madrid, which Panetta also visited Tuesday; Rome; and London, where he is scheduled to stop this week. Like the United States, each country is financially strapped and is eager to withdraw its troops from NATO’s expensive and drawn-out mission in Afghanistan.

In Madrid, Panetta said he recognized that Spain in particular has been hammered economically since 2008. But he warned that no NATO ally can afford to forsake its responsibilities or ignore an array of global threats.

“Each of us, obviously, has to make decisions as to how we deal with those threats and at the same time meet our responsibilities to fiscal integrity,” he said at a news conference with Spanish Defense Minister Pedro Morenes. “We still live in a dangerous world.”

U.S. troops have been stationed since World War II at Lajes, on the island of Terceira, about 2,200 miles east of Washington. The base was a strategic location for hunting Nazi U-boats during World War II and was one of the few places in the mid-Atlantic for a cargo plane or fighter jet to refuel or make an emergency landing.

Because of their increased range and a global network of tankers that provide midair refueling services, few U.S. military planes touch down at Lajes anymore — just one or two a day.

In addition to Lajes, the Defense Department is gradually shrinking its presence elsewhere in Europe. Last year, the Pentagon announced it would eliminate two Army brigades and an Air Force squadron based in Germany, as well as another squadron based in Italy.

 
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