Future of American air base at risk

HUNDREDS of millions of pounds could be wiped from Suffolk's economy if fears for the future of one of the county's giant American air bases are realised.

Dave Gooderham

HUNDREDS of millions of pounds could be wiped from Suffolk's economy if fears for the future of one of the county's giant American air bases are realised.

Speculation was last night mounting that RAF Lakenheath could shut following reports that the last 110 American nuclear bombs on UK soil had been withdrawn from the base - prompting “deep concern” for the viability of the entire local economy.

The news sent shockwaves through the area, which benefits to the tune of more than £400million ($828.5million) every year from the base thanks to thousands of civilian jobs, massive building and maintenance projects, tourism and housing.

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Councillors spoke of their “deep concern” over the future of RAF Lakenheath, which employs more than 2,000 British people and is home to more than 5,000 servicemen and women working on the 48th Fighter Wing, following the secret bomb move - exposed by a prominent nuclear researcher.

Forest Heath District Council leader Geoffrey Jaggard said: “RAF Lakenheath, and (neighbouring) RAF Mildenhall, are very important to the economy in Forest Heath and this news fills me with deep concern. It could have a serious impact on lots of local contractors and the housing market and the viability of the local economy as a whole.”

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A study by the Federation of American Scientists said that the last 110 American nuclear weapons were withdrawn from RAF Lakenheath on the orders of President George Bush - more than 50 years after they were first deployed in 1954.

The report's author, Hans Kristensen , said the move - which has not been officially announced - had happened in the past few years, but had only come to light yesterday.

Peace campaigners, who have for years protested against nuclear bombs on the base, welcomed the news while parish councillor John Gentle, who has lived in the village for more than 30 years, said he was not surprised by the latest developments.

He said: “I was invited on base and was told by a deputy base commander that they would not be there forever and to plan accordingly. I don't know whether this will be the beginning of the end but the base will not always be there. I have always thought too many people have had their head in the sand over Lakenheath's future.”

Mr Kristensen, a leading expert on Washington's nuclear arsenal, described the withdrawal of the B-61 bombs as part of a general strategic shift since the end of the Cold War which has seen a greater focus on bases in Italy and Turkey.

Kate Hudson, chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), said: “The news that these bombs have been withdrawn from Lakenheath is extremely welcome. We would like official confirmation from the Government that this has happened and believe an open admission will be a confidence-boosting measure for future disarmament initiatives.”

But Ms Hudson warned against the possibility of installing replacement interceptor missiles at the USAF base claiming that it would “replace one historical arms race with another”.

The removal of weapons from Lakenheath comes after years of mass campaigning across Europe against the deployment of US nuclear weapons on the continent.

The Ministry of Defence declined to comment while an RAF Lakenheath spokesman said Washington's policy was not to comment on the location of nuclear weapons.

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