Base set to lose 1,000 troops

ONE of East Anglia's mighty US airbases looks certain to lose 1,000 troops – almost a quarter of its personnel – re-igniting closure fears which have dogged the facility for years.

ONE of East Anglia's mighty US airbases looks certain to lose 1,000 troops – almost a quarter of its personnel – re-igniting closure fears which have dogged the facility for years.

In sweeping changes announced by a top commander of American military forces in Europe, RAF Mildenhall's 352nd Special Operations Group is scheduled to transfer to either Spain or Italy in a move which has prompted gloomy predictions for the area's economy.

Millions of dollars are pumped into the West Suffolk economy annually thanks to the bases at RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath and community leaders fear the latest plans will have serious and long-lasting repercussions.

However, it is believed that Mildenhall's multi-million dollar new runway – one of the biggest in Europe – would make the base a prime target for a civilian airport, a move which could well result in a booming local economy.

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General James Jones, chief of US European Command, is expected to announce the proposals to Congress this week in a bid to tackle emerging threats in Eastern Europe and Africa.

But the controversial plans have sparked fresh fears that Mildenhall could close and also a growing belief that the site could accommodate a civilian airport.

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Forest Heath district councillor Terry Waters said: "This could well be the beginning of the end for Mildenhall.

"People always say the Americans won't move because they are spending all this money on improvements to the base. But they could easily spend millions today and be gone tomorrow.

"I think the local community will worry about these plans especially those who work on the base and those who let houses to Americans.

"In my opinion, I think it would be more beneficial to the local economy and community if the Americans did leave and something like Marshalls Aerospace was to come here."

Suffolk county councillor Roger Pendleton said he expected the proposals to have some effect on the local economy but it would not be as significant an earlier US exit would have been.

"The Americans practically live on the base and we don't get so much money off the base," he added.

"I am sure these plans would have a significant impact on the base but only a little effect on the civilian population.

"I personally think a civilian airport would be a fantastic idea and far more beneficial."

And West Suffolk MP Richard Spring called for calm following the announcement - saying it did not mean the base would close.

Mr Spring said: "I am not unduly worried about this as things come and go. There has been a huge investment in both bases and over the years, there has always been this kind of movement.

"The Americans constantly assure us that their relationship in west Suffolk is one of the best and I think there is no question this will remain."

It is believed negotiations to move the Special Operations Group away from Suffolk have gone on for more than a year.

General Jones said he wanted to consolidate the unit with a Special Forces group in Germany and the Navy's SEAL teams in Spain and Germany.

"We are looking for a position south of the Alps to better place our centre of mass for special operations," General Jones told Forces newspaper Stars and Stripes.

The 352nd group, which executes special operations and combat rescues, moved to Mildenhall ten years ago and have carried out missions in both Iraqi conflicts and humanitarian operations in Serbia and Kosovo.

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