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Atlantis Rising: Re-posturing the Azores for the Era of Strategic Competition

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Shawn Littleton

Disclaimer: I’ve spent a lot of time studying the strategic significance of the Azores and am applying that while serving there. I’m not an expert but I think I can help illuminate the decision space for some choices that need to be made. They are Portuguese Islands. Portugal has their own plans and aspirations there, and is an ally we will work with for any changes we hope to make. I’m solely writing what I think Americans need to know in American terms to calibrate America’s posture in the islands, but not just for American benefit. I truly believe the collective security of the free world and the ‘constellation of alliances and partnerships’ that America is part of is entangled with decisions that need to be made today vis-à-vis the U.S. posture in the archipelago.


What if Atlantis never sank beneath the waves? What if it simply slipped below the waterline of memory, an artifact of past greatness, obscured from the present by the murkiness of misplaced priorities, awaiting rediscovery to deliver secrets of power in a time of crisis? The Azores Archipelago, long connected with the Atlantean myth, promises just such strength at a time when the intensification of Strategic Competition portends coming decades of crisis in the Atlantic region. These islands, full of forgotten strategic potential, are hovering in the mists at the edge of American military consciousness. It is time to bring them back into focus. It is time to raise Atlantis! The transition to Strategic Competition demands a reconsideration of the US posture in the Azores to translate their latent potential into fulfilling the aspirations of Global Campaigning, providing deterrence by denial, and deterrence by resilience.

Global Campaigning and the Azores: Emerging Crisis, the Arc of History, and the Sinking of Atlantis

The Atlantic region is on the cusp of a state of strategic crisis resulting from the intensification of Strategic Competition, the new National Defense Strategy envisions Campaigning as the answer to the problem, and the Azores are a necessary part. What exactly is the problem? To synthesize the painfully gained lessons of an entire year of Air War College into one sentence, the “problem” are the barriers that lay between you and your goal, and your strategy is where you apply energy to change trends within a complexly interactive system to overcome the problem and meet that goal. Campaigning as an answer to the problem is more of a philosophical aspiration than a practical answer. It presents a nearly unbounded problem/solution space where a lack of focus foreshadows a dilution of effort that will leave Campaigning as a well-intentioned failure with existential consequences. Campaigning is not an answer, but rather a dare to illuminate and clarify “the problem” for enhanced understanding, enable action by providing specificity in answers, and build consensus around the understanding and the action. The Azores provide a beacon in the darkening storm of the problem/solution space in the Atlantic, but can only turn strategic crisis into ‘enduring advantage’ if postured correctly.

The Atlantic facet of America’s problem is that the region is entering a state of crisis, driving consensus to halt the inertia of military downsizing but creating an open question for the future of a lynchpin location, the Azores. Ongoing Russian hostilities are the proximate cause of concerns when asserting that the Atlantic is on the cusp of crisis, but the ultimate cause is the expansion of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It may seem a far cry to equate China’s growth as a regional power in the Pacific to posing a credible threat in the Atlantic, but the intersection of two trends makes this prognostication eminently believable by revealing both opportunity and motive for PRC misdeeds in the Atlantic. First, a decisive, military resolution to the intensifying friction between America and China is unlikely to occur with America striking preemptively or China striking prematurely. Therefore, America will not stop PRC expansion over the next decade but must channel it in a fashion that maintains a favorable relative power balance and upholds the International Rules Based Order (IRBO). Second, there is a strong incentive for China to enter the Atlantic space and evidence that they are acting on it. Stated PRC policy and rates of shipbuilding belie an intent to operate in the Atlantic via a “Polar Silk Road”[1] and possible PRC Atlantic Fleet, with the likelihood that PRC ground forces may exist along the Atlantic coasts of South America and Africa. As these trends cause the cone of uncertainty for the Atlantic’s future to include ever more unappealing end states, navigating towards a preferred end state becomes both a more complicated and more urgent problem to solve. The U.S. presence in the Azores is definitely part of the solution.

The Azores have quietly played an outsized role in the unfolding of world history, and the solution to strategic problems, since their “discovery” by Portugal 600 years ago. The islands aided Portugal’s maritime ascendancy to global power. The Spanish campaign to take them in 1581-1583 was arguably the inflection point where contemporary Strategic Competition truly transitioned from theater warfare to Global Campaigning. It was the first time that European powers fought each other outside of their home theater in a second theater (the Atlantic) to decide control of a third theater (the Americas). The campaign set the record as the largest European force sent overseas, was the largest naval battle away from a continental shelf until the battle of Midway nearly 400 years later, and was the first, contested amphibious assault on the high seas.[2] These record-setting undertakings were not symbolic struggles over honor or fear-driven aggression, but coldly-calculated moves for enduring interests. While Spain controlled the Azores, from 1583 to 1642, no other European power succeeded in settling a colony south of Virginia, giving Spain privileged access to a “New World” for resource extraction and demographic expansion to gain a competitive advantage in the ongoing struggle with their Old World adversaries. Access to the Azores provided a strategic advantage in every trans-Atlantic conflict by granting area control of the otherwise permeable air and sea space of the North Atlantic.

The isolation of the Azores provides cost-effective exclusivity in controlling an incredibly valuable section of the global commons. These remote islands sit atop the third densest shipping route in the world and safeguarding it maintains the IRBO, preventing the rise of alternative world orders architected to favor authoritarian states. The islands historically served as a risk reduction platform to help mitigate the danger of distance during technology transitions in transportation and communication.[3] For example, the progression from sail to steam to combustion, the proliferation of the airplane, or the evolution of undersea cable networks. As each technology matured, the need for a midway point to resupply, repair, or shelter from both natural and human hostility diminished. This technological maturation caused an explosion in the transmission of value across the Atlantic in the form of both goods and information. So, while the commercial utilization of the Azores eventually decreased, the military utility grew in terms of the ability to either threaten or defend increasingly vital Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs).[4]As the threats of the Cold War faded, the impetus to maintain a strong presence in the Azores weakened, and the strategic distractions of the Global War on Terrorism shifted emphasis away from great power competition and drew U.S. defense resources away from the islands. The cargo ships sailed past, the sentries slipped away, and the Azores faded from memory… Atlantis sank.

Re-posturing for the New National Defense Strategy: Deterrence by Denial and by Resilience

The massive, latent potential of the Azores is dormant, but America can renew the Archipelago’s utility for the collective good with modest re-posturing investments. The arrival of U.S. forces in the Azores during both World War I and II turned the tide in the Atlantic space, providing, or at least accelerating, victory in Europe. Arriving after the wars began arguably made America “late” to the Azores. The enduring presence since World War II was critical to Israel’s survival in the 1973 War,[5] the flow of forces for Desert Storm,[6] and continues to be important for averting World War III. While America still supports the ongoing search and rescue mission of the Portuguese Air Force, beyond that important mission, past choices left America’s current presence in the Azores relegated to act as a low-density transit hub. The remaining US presence in the Azores, all stationed at Lajes Field on the island of Terceira, lack both the manning and infrastructure to effectively meet the demands of modern Strategic Competition.

Posture changes in the Azores can positively affect deterrence by denial in both the immediate vicinity, further abroad, and in the diplomatic sphere. Exclusive access to the Azores allows the creation of an exclusive A2AD bubble in the middle of one of the world's most highly trafficked flight and shipping corridors. Unlike most of the A2AD challenges the United States bemoans from competitors like China and Russia, which are overlapping red and blue A2AD bubbles where operation by offensive forces is mutually hazardous, this is a friendly A2AD bubble without much red overlap. The islands also possess the capacity to host friendly-nation forces for coalition action in the area. Increasing the posture in the Azores communicates intent and bolsters deterrent credibility without exacerbating security dilemmas. The dearth of islands along North Atlantic flight and shipping corridors, makes them the only real high ground, and maintaining a credible presence in the Azores forces a dramatically disproportionate investment for an adversary that aspires to do more than selectively and infrequently threaten the highway between North America and Europe/Africa.

If postured correctly, the Azores provide a credible surety that America can project military hard power and economic soft power into Europe and Africa. It isn’t safe to be a nail anywhere the hammer can fall. The Azores allow impressive power projection. There is enough gas there (by my quick, unclassified, back-of-napkin math) for 1200 unrefueled B-2 sorties over most potential conflict zones in Europe and Africa; however, the reach and impact of the hammer is not just what is within reach of the Azores but is also largely a function of throughput for positioning forces to operate elsewhere. Having the Azores as a reliable conduit to both extend and amplify the U.S. military’s operational reach complicates the decision calculus of adversaries when they attempt to proliferate military assets and economic investments. Without that conduit, the United States has an escalation ceiling imposed upon it for reinforcing Europe. Lajes Field, or to be more precise the Portuguese units at Portuguese Air Base 4 and the American unit operating on it, has the most important assets to enable throughput as vestigial remnants of the Cold War: the largest ramp space, largest fuel storage, and second longest runway in the United States Air Forces Europe.[7] Capitalizing upon this existing infrastructure with minor investments is a cost-effective way to multiply power projection and throughput capacity from the Azores.  

The well-informed reader is probably wondering “Why one would even use the Azores for force throughput when modern aircraft have the range and reliability to fly right over it?” There are three important factors to consider. First, any war that requires a high volume of transatlantic force flow will see the main operating airfields at the destination end heavily attacked and facing capacity problems. Second, the Azores are outside of most traditional threat rings. If the Azores are getting nuked, everyone probably has bigger problems. Third, a major war in Europe or against a PRC that has proliferated massive forces through Africa in the coming decades is not suppliable solely via airlift. Questions of “how much, how fast, at what price” are going to demand strategic sealift, which is much more efficient when one’s ships are not being sunk crossing the mid-Atlantic gap. Much like the current Secretary of the Air Force’s operational imperatives encourage, maintaining the infrastructure and manning in the Azores to rapidly transition to a wartime footing allows mid-Atlantic area control of the air space and sea space, both on and below the waves.[8] Controlling this area not only facilitates homeland defense as a “first” (and really only) island chain for a worst-case future where enemies could flow across the Atlantic but also allows projection of forces from the American homeland, deterring adversary action in the continents bounding the Atlantic.

Being postured to rapidly transition to a wartime footing also provides deterrence by resilience. It provides a secure location for a partial retrograde from Europe, should the need arise, and allows quick and easy reinforcement of the Atlantic boundary spaces. It provides freedom of action that reassures American Partners and Allies that U.S. power projection remains viable at a relevant scale to protect mutual interests. In the words of the new National Defense Strategy, it also helps to affect an adversary’s own perception of the ability to control escalation risk. The Azores provide an economically efficient, positive balance of power in the Atlantic and contribute to the surrounding spaces. Posturing correctly channelizes Atlantic aspirants into less advantageous real estate. Beyond just the balance of power comes a balance of agility. The options it enables provides excellent possibilities for flexible deterrence or flexible response options, meaning that any adversaries are accepting immense risk if attempting to operate in a space where America enjoys escalation dominance.

Atlantis Rising

The Azores, the forgotten Atlantis, still hold immense power. As Strategic Competition intensifies and Atlantis rises back above the waterline of memory and strategic relevance, America must rediscover this lost stronghold. Modest changes in the posture of U.S. forces and infrastructure in the Azores promise immense advantages in today’s dramatically changing security environment. The military posture in the islands meters the throughput of expeditionary forces, directly affecting the credibility of deterrence by denial or resilience abroad. It serves as a first line of defense for trans-oceanic aggression and either guards or threatens the third densest shipping route in the world. US presence there positively affects relations with allies and the decision calculus of adversaries, but the posture determines the magnitude of that impact. It is time to take a serious look at that posture… it is time to raise Atlantis!


Lt Col Shawn Littleton
Shawn Littleton currently serves as the Deputy Commander of the 65th Air Base Group at Lajes Field in the Azores. He became an Azores aficionado after spending hundreds of hours reading thousands of pages about the islands while working on his Professional Studies Paper “The Strategic Significance of the Azores” at Air War College. Despite this, he is still objective – he overcame writing-induced trauma from Air War College to write a piece he truly believes in. 


[1.] David Auerswald, “China’s Multifaceted Arctic Strategy,” War on the Rocks, May 24, 2019,

[2.]  Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe. (London: Routledge, 2002), 181–83; Alan James, “A French Armada? The Azores Campaigns, 1580–1583,” The Historical Journal 55, no. 1 (2012): 3,

[3.] Shawn Littleton, “The Strategic Significance of the Azores” Air War College PSP (The Air War College, April 2022), 17–22,

[4.] Ibid., 2.

[5.] John Correll, “The Yom Kippur Airlift,” Air Force Magazine (blog), June 24, 2016,

[6.] 65th ABW History Office, “A Short History of Lajes Field,” 2012, 20–21.

[7.] Lauren Jacoby, “Minding the Mid-Atlantic Gap,” Kaiserslautern American, October 28, 2022,

[8.] “Kendall Details ‘Seven Operational Imperatives’ & How They Forge the Future Force,” Air Force, March 3, 2022,

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