>> Friday, November 16, 2012
Red Flag Over The Atlantic
China is angling to take over a U.S. airbase in the Azores.
--Gordon G. Chang
With the threat of sequestration looming, could the loss of a strategic airbase in the northern Atlantic damage the U.S.'s ability to both defend itself and our allies, and remain a superpower?
...Pentagon budget cutters, according to some observers, are planning to make Lajes a “ghost base.”
At one time, the facility was critically important. During World War II, the airfield was instrumental in hunting U-boats, and in the Cold War the base helped the West track the Soviets. Lajes was a busy transit point in the Gulf War. It was one of the spots where the Space Shuttle could have landed in an emergency.
Now Lajes is home to the USAF’s 65th Air Base Wing, which supports American and NATO aircraft transiting the Atlantic, and it hosts various other American military units. Its role, nonetheless, is greatly diminished. Peace in the North Atlantic and advances in air-to-air refueling have decreased the importance of the strategic runway, which is now rarely used by the U.S.
So from a purely military point of view, the decision to cease operations at Lajes makes sense. The effective closure of the field, however, would send Terceira into a tailspin. While agriculture forms the basis of the island’s economy, the base directly accounts for about one in 20 jobs there.
Unemployment is already high, about 10 percent. If Terceira is to have any future, the Portuguese government will have to find a new major tenant for Air Base No. 4.
So what's the big deal? Portugal just get's another tenant? The island doesn't suffer.
Unfortunately, that tenant could likely end up being China.
Terceira, however, has one big attraction for Beijing: Air Base No. 4. Better known as Lajes Field, the facility where Premier Wen’s 747 landed in June is jointly operated by the U.S. Air Force and its Portuguese counterpart. If China controlled the base, the Atlantic would no longer be secure. From the 10,865-foot runway on the northeast edge of the island, Chinese planes could patrol the northern and central portions of the Atlantic and thereby cut air and sea traffic between the U.S. and Europe. Beijing would also be able to deny access to the nearby Mediterranean Sea.
And China could target the American homeland. Lajes is less than 2,300 miles from New York, shorter than the distance between Pearl Harbor and Los Angeles.
On a personal note, I spent a year on Terceira. It's beautiful... dormant volcano at the center; a volcanic attraction called the Calheta dos Biscoitos to the island's north; black basalt rock everywhere, especially shoring up the terraced agricultural fields. I had lot of fun on that island.
The island is only 240 square miles (roughly 18 miles long and 11 miles wide)... lush vegetation, and hedgehogs. I remember seeing hedgehogs up in the forested hills across from where I lived. If you have the time here's the island on Google Maps.