Ukraine events may mean stay of execution for US airbase in England
Lakenheath in Suffolk is keeping a close eye on developments in eastern Europe
Lakenheath, England: A United States F-15E Strike Eagle is taxied prior to departure from RAF Lakenheath. Photograph: Getty Images
In the years after the second World War, the runways at the military airfield in Lakenheath, Suffolk, that had been used by the Royal Air Force during some of the darkest days of the conflict went quiet.
During the war, it had often been a bustling place, serving an RAF Wellington squadron for a time. In 1943, it was decided that it would become home to US Superfortresses – the Boeing heavy bomber.
The aircraft were huge, so new runways were needed, laid with 12in high-grade concrete. However, the war ended as the work was completed, leaving Lakenheath to be mothballed.
The airfield was saved by US president Harry Truman and the cold war. By 1948, the Superfortresses had arrived. The Americans are there still.
Today, 5,000 military and 2,000 civilians serve at the airbase on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border – with most of the military at “mini America” living in nearby towns and villages.
Now though, the US airforce is preparing for billions of dollars worth of cutbacks; it must cut 25,000 posts over the next three years.
Under two of the three options
being considered on the back of a Rand Corporation report for the US department of defence, Lakenheath would close.
Defending his report, Michael Lostumbo of the Washington-based think tank argued that there were “not a lot of combat areas you can reach readily from Lakenheath”.
The base is useful for training with the RAF and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies, though moving more forces to the Middle East could be “one option” for the US department of defence to consider, he added.
During the height of the cold war, the US airforce had dozens of fighter bases around the world but “relatively few exist today”, noted Rand.
There are, in fact, only seven: Lakenheath; Spangdahlem in Germany; Aviano in Italy; Osan and Kunsan in South Korea; and Misawa and Kadena in Japan.
Indeed, the 48th Fighter Wing at Lakenheath is the only one at full strength. But closing it could save the US airforce $314 million (€227 million) every year, according to the report.
“Fewer forces and fewer bases ultimately translate into reduced operational flexibility and could undermine US regional stability, deterrence, and reassurance objectives” it says.
“Ultimately, the nation faces a critical choice: Do we intend to remain a global military power or not? There are substantial costs associated with either choice. If we choose the former, a large set of responsibilities and force demands flow from that decision and cannot be avoided,” it adds.
Closure would have a serious impact on the local economy. Together with nearby RAF Mildenhall, Lakenheath supports hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local jobs.
The Americans investigated that economic impact last year, estimating that Lakenheath pumped £365 million into the local economy each year, supporting 2,200 jobs.
The report has caused worry among some locals, says Forest Heath councillor for Lakenheath Colin Noble. “It’s a very big part of the local economy,” he said.
The US department of defence is expected to make its decision about fighter bases abroad in coming months. For now it is tight-lipped, saying only that Rand had advanced “a shared understanding of the tensions and trade-offs associated with potential overseas force adjustments”.
Meanwhile, Lakenheath and surrounding districts are looking just that little bit more carefully than most in Britain at developments in Ukraine – events likely to mark yet another change in US military deployments.
“My gut feeling is that . . . looking at what’s happening in Crimea, to close a significantly large establishment like this which is close to Europe – that is unlikely to happen any time soon,” said Ian Smith, vice-chairman of Lakenheath parish council.
East Anglia was once dotted with military bases, but changes since the fall of the Berlin Wall have cut their numbers: RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, from where Sir Douglas Bader flew during the second World War, finally closed in 2006.
The hopes of locals for a quiet life seem forlorn, since Norfolk County Council seem on the point of granting permission to a company to extract thousands of tons of gravel from the site.
However, history can have a long reach. Last month, two RAF 500lb bombs were found on the Euston estate owned by the Duke of Grafton – bombs that were dumped by RAF crews forced to turn back from German raids 70 years ago.