Could new US Government report spell the end for RAF Lakenheath - or will the Crimea stave off closure threat for now?
PUBLISHED: 15:08 23 March 2014 | UPDATED: 15:08 23 March 2014
The future of the country’s biggest US Air Force base on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border has been plunged into more doubt after a report commissioned by the US government recommended it for closure.
RAF Lakenheath would be closed under two of the three options put forward by the global think tank RAND Corporation in its report for the US Department of Defense examining the world’s most powerful military’s presence overseas.
Thousands of military and civilian staff at Lakenheath live off-base in the local area, while it and neighbouring RAF Mildenhall pump more than £500million into the local economy every year having been stalwarts of west Suffolk since World War Two.
But the base’s 74-year affiliation with the area could soon be over as the US Air Force prepares for drastic spending cuts totalling billions of dollars, with RAND’s report recommending Lakenheath for closure under two options and relocating its resident 48th Fighter Wing to another base in the third, leaving the base open with just its intelligence and communication operations remaining.
James Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council, said: “We’ve got a good broad base in our local economy, lots of expertise in working with the American bases and supporting local business, so I’m confident we’ll deal with whatever comes our way.
“Forest Heath has a really strong focus on our local economy so we won’t be waiting to see what happens - we’ll be in there talking to people, finding out what support we can give and doing all we can to make sure what’s happening at the bases isn’t to the detriment of our local area.”
Earlier this year this newspaper exclusively revealed that thousands of troops could leave both bases as part of the drive to cut costs, which Graham Abbey, chairman of Newmarket & District Chamber of Commerce, said would have a “huge impact” on the area.
“If you think about the employment locally, across both bases they employ a good few hundred local people, probably even into the thousands,” he added.
“It would also impact on the spend in the local community. The other thing in there as well is there’s lots of housing let out to the bases. There’s three major areas it would have an impact on, it would have a huge impact.”
RAND’s report is just one part of the ongoing European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) review underway by the US Department of Defense, the results of which are due to be published later this year.
A spokesman for United States Air Force Europe said: “Until the EIC is complete, it would be premature to discuss any changes to US Air Force basing in Europe.”
Closing RAF Lakenheath could save the air force $314m every year, according to the 487-page report. The base costs the US Air Force $211m annually.
RAF Mildenhall, which costs $222m every year, is home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing and is considered a key tactical base.
While it is left untouched by two of RAND’s three options, the other would see staff there return to the United States while it remained open as just a more modest refuelling base.
Master Sergeant Zachary Melin from RAF Lakenheath said yesterday: “There’s nothing new that we know at this stage. These decisions are all being made at a higher level.”
Community leaders in Lakenheath yesterday spoke of the importance of RAF Lakenheath to the village.
However, the village’s post office and shop said the base’s exit would not hit their businesses too hard, and the village had been there centuries before RAF Lakenheath arrived during the Second World War.
Villagers were also unanimous that they would ‘believe it when they saw it’, while many felt Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine may change the US Air Force’s thinking when it comes to Lakenheath.
“My gut feeling is that although the governments are trying to save money, 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 anytime soon,” said Ian Smith, vice chairman of Lakenheath Parish Council.
“Every time we have a new application for another house, it always goes to rental. If the base would close, there’s no rental demand. That causes a problem because who would buy them?
“I don’t think now is the time they’d do it, from a military or operating point of view.”
American Vince Williams, who has lived in Lakenheath since 1982, is the assembly leader at the Lakenheath Abundant Life church.
He said: “The base is part of life out here. Housing in this area is dominated by military members. It provides jobs for local people, doing things like cleaning and repairs, but there’s also their purchasing power - they don’t only shop on the base.
“I don’t think it will go away - not yet. There’s a time for that to happen, but they start talking about stuff five or ten years away. I also think what’s going on in Russia is important and the potential for it to escalate back to the Cold War.
“It has been rumoured (to close) in the past, but I think in this present climate it’s more of a possibility.”
Phil Bradley, assistant postmaster at Lakenheath Post Office, said: “It is an important thing to the local economy, but I don’t think it would affect the post office here to that extent, because they’ve got their own local post office on base.
“I don’t think it will actually affect the village here in a major way. Obviously the car hire companies, they’re going to suffer greatly, but most of our customers come from the village.
“If the base closes then so be it - the village was here centuries before the Americans were.”
Brendan Fulham has been spearheading the People’s Project in Lakenheath, which hopes to bring the village a state-of-the-art community hub.
He said the air base to Lakenheath was like the Ford factory to Dagenham, adding: “They are part of the fabric of our village. Many of them integrate - they send their children to our schools, they shop in our shops.
“I believe this cutback in the military is no different than has been going on in the United States military for years. I don’t see the base being in a position to close anytime soon.”