Lisbon, Portugal — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed here January 14 on the first leg of what he said is likely his last international trip as secretary.
While here, the secretary is scheduled to meet separately with Foreign Minister Paulo Portas and Defense Minister José Pedro Aguiar-Branco, with whom he is scheduled to hold a joint news conference.
Panetta also will visit Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, known as STRIKFORNATO. 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.
During the flight here, Panetta told reporters traveling with him that Portugal is a key NATO ally and an important strategic partner in the Mediterranean and beyond.
“I am told that I’m the first [U.S. defense] secretary to visit Portugal in at least 30 years,” he said.
The U.S. and Portuguese militaries have a history of close cooperation, particularly in the Azores, he said. The Azores are a group of nine volcanic islands belonging to Portugal but strategically located some 1,500 kilometers west of Lisbon in the mid-Atlantic.
Panetta acknowledged DOD will reduce operations at Lajes Field, an air base that houses Portuguese and U.S. Air Force elements and a regional air passenger terminal, located on Terceira Island in the Azores.
The number of U.S. and Portuguese service members based there will drop by at least half from the current 1,100 population, DOD officials said December 13. Aircraft operations support also will be reduced, and the United States will return about 300 of the 400 buildings on the base to the Portuguese government, officials said.
U.S. forces have been in the Azores since 1943, when World War II saw troops at Lajes first protecting allied shipping lanes and later hunting German submarines.
Panetta said while DOD will reduce operations at Lajes because of budget constraints, his goal is to tell 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, and to try to focus on the challenges of mutual interest, such as maritime security.
Panetta will travel to Madrid, Rome and London.