Panetta commits to US hiring three Azoreans for every American on Lajes

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, shakes hands with Portugal’s Defense Minister Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco at the end of their joint news conference following their meeting at the Forte de Sao Juliao da Barra Lisbon, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. This is Panetta’s first time in Portugal, the first stop of a European tour that is expected to be his last overseas trip as secretary. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

LISBON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. is committed to hiring three local workers for every American employed at the Lajes Base on Terceira Island, Azores.
Panetta started his Europe Tour in Portugal, where he met Tuesday with Portuguese Defense Minister José Aguiar Branco in Lisbon. On the table were the U.S. plans to remove more than 400 military personnel and as many as 500 family members from the Azores base in 2014.
“The U.S. military remain connected to Lajes. It is a very important base for us and it will continue to be a vital part of our global network,” said Panetta.
Aguiar Branco said he spoke with Panetta about Portugal’s concerns that pulling troops from the base would have a serious economic impact.
Panetta said a group of U.S. businessmen is expected to visit the Lajes Base in February to assess the situation and determine what other steps the U.S. can take to reduce the economic impact.
“We will do everything possible so that the economic impact of this reduction is the lowest possible,” said the Secretary of Defense. “We will continue to support and maintain a strong relationship we have built over the years.”
Presently, there are about 650 U.S. service members and Defense Department civilians at the Lajes Base. It is expected that the Air Force service members who remain in Terceira would serve yearlong tours and would not be accompanied by their families.
U.S. aircraft operations support will also be reduced, and the United States is expected to return about 300 of the 400 buildings on the base to the Portuguese government.
While budget constraints have led the U.S. Department of Defense to reduce operations at Lajes, Panneta said Portugal will remain a Key NATO ally and an important strategic partner.
The Defense Secretary said his goal for the trip was to inform Portuguese leaders how the United States intends to broaden and transform the U.S.-Portugal defense relationship through increased military-to-military engagement and exercises. He also said the U.S. would try to focus on the challenges of mutual interest, such as maritime security.
Panetta was also scheduled to visit the Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, known as STRIKFORNATO, in Oeiras. Alliance officials said the organization is NATO’s premier maritime battle staff and the alliance’s primary link for integrating U.S. maritime forces into NATO operations.
The U.S. and Portuguese militaries have a history of close cooperation. U.S. forces have been stationed in the Azores since World War II, when troops at Lajes played an important role in protecting allied shipping lanes and tracking German submarines.
With LUSA, Associated Press and American Forces Press Service