Boost for future of Suffolk airbase

THE future of an "absolutely critical" American air base has been further strengthened after officials announced a new wing overseeing UK operations is to be based in Suffolk.

THE future of an "absolutely critical" American air base has been further strengthened after officials announced a new wing overseeing UK operations is to be based in Suffolk.

But the news has provoked a mixed reaction from community leaders neighbouring RAF Mildenhall – with some urging contingency plans are drawn up in case the US Air Force eventually decide to abandon the base.

Gen Robert H Foglesong, United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) commander, announced yesterday a new wing would be set up in Suffolk, from which activity at five other bases around the country, including Alconbury and Fairford, would be overseen.

Previously, these bases, known as geographically separated units (GSUs) were supported by the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

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Although only 30 posts will be created within the 501st Combat Support Wing (CSW), a base spokesman said: "This is just another example of the enduring value of RAF Mildenhall and our commitment to the UK."

The news comes following months of speculation over the future of the base.

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But west Suffolk MP Richard Spring said last night he has "never doubted" the USAFE's commitment to the county.

"The importance of RAF Mildenhall is absolutely critical to the whole of the US air force defence effort in the whole of Europe," he said.

"If the US were ever to leave Europe, the last two bases to be closed in my view would be Lakenheath and Mildenhall.

"We do have these stories from time to time when personnel are deployed to different parts of Europe, and people tend to get worried. But I have never for one moment doubted their total commitment.

"This news indicates a further strengthening of the role of RAF Mildenhall."

But John Taylor, chairman of the Mildenhall Community Partnership, said he had become increasingly "less sure" the American military would stay.

"I feel the time has now come for us to seriously look at what we propose in the event that they should decide to abandon the base," he said.

"We would look very foolish if it did happen in five years' time and we weren't ready.

"Frankly, you cannot expect the military to commit themselves for more than two to three years as they cannot make promises into the distant future.

"I would like to see the area turned into a civilian airport, which would be great, or industry moving in.

"I do not think the American contribution to the economy locally is very significant. There is a small amount spent on renting houses, but that is greatly being retrenched as time goes on and more people are pulled back on to the base.

"They are disentangling themselves gradually from the local community and I personally think it is a shame."

The new wing will not affect the operations of the 100th Air Refueling Wing or the 352nd Special Operations Squadron, which are also based at Mildenhall.

Gen Foglesong said: "A new wing in the UK makes sense. It further streamlines and focuses the GSU support functions in the UK and places them under a UK-based wing commander.

"There will be no change to the way our GSUs operate day-to-day. It's just a smarter way of conducting business and serving our customers better."

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