Gallery: Wattisham Airfield will rise to any challenge despite cutbacks
The importance of a major military base in Suffolk will prevail despite deep cuts to the Army.
That is the view of Wattisham Airfield’s top boss, Colonel Jason Etherington, who is upbeat about the future.
Whitehall cuts to defence, known as Army 2020, will see the number of regulars cut from 102,000 to 82,000.
But the airfield, near Stowmarket, which is the primary UK base for the Apache attack helicopter, is not in danger, according to the 43-year-old.
“The Army 2020 reduction is affecting most areas across the Army in numbers but it has not reduced us in capability,” he said.
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“We will be able to do what we did before 2020, we have just had to become more efficient and streamlined. Aspirations are changing and have changed so if we want to put together an Army as we did in the 1970s across Europe then we need strength to do it but we are managing exactly what the political aspirations are.
“I am quite comfortable with that capability; we have to be able to deal with what we are asked to do.”
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Although the base’s 654 squadron was mothballed recently the Army has said it would not affect personnel levels.
Despite 1,900 people – both military and civilian – working at Wattisham an entire regiment of men and women have been flying and maintaining the Apache in Afghanistan since 2006. Now the long four-month tours in the desert are almost over with operations finishing at the end of the year.
Col Etherington said: “We have not stopped, we have got pilots, ground crews, engineers who are on their sixth operation there in Afghan. Everybody wants to go for the first couple of times, when people go on their fifth or sixth time it is a challenge.
“One of the challenges with particular individuals is leave and downtime and if we are honest there’s a mandatory period that people should have and we remain within it for 95% of the time. There are some who do two operations, two four-month tours in a year.
“The big change will be when we return from Afghanistan at the end of the year, it will allow us to focus on the future.
“I honestly believe the future is more exciting with the development of attack helicopters – focusing on supporting anyone in defence so we are prepared to deploy anywhere in the world at a moments notice.”
When the Apaches do return the base will return to full strength and focus entirely on its rapid response role.
Previously home to Lynx and Gazelle helicopters the Army now has 40 Apaches within its hangers or out on the runways ready to take off.
Col Etherington said: “We always have a group or squadron ready to go out the door and since 2006 we have been supporting Afghanistan.
“In the future we will have more capability at less notice; the future will be about how quickly we can react. If we are called we can go out anywhere in the world in a few days.”
The base does not have capacity for all of its personnel so many families live off base. Col Etherington admitted the airfield had not changed much over the years.
He added: “That’s why I am focused on trying to improve the living and working conditions on camp by looking at building a community centre.
“There’s not very much public transport, there’s no broadband, the cellular coverage is pretty poor and that does not help. We have started to get more investment in the station but again we are competing with the rest of defence.”
It is not only Apaches which can be heard coming from Wattisham, the base is also home to the county’s police helicopter, the Sea King search and rescue helicopters and Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service’s training centre.
The history of Wattisham Airfield is something Maggie Aggiss devotes much of her life to.
She is curator of the base’s museum which houses two jets that used to fly from the airfield. The Black Arrow Hawker Hunter jet flew from Wattisham more than 50 years ago but has been renovated.
Alongside the impressive plane is the Cold War fighter/bomber, the McDonnell Douglas Phantom, which was still at the base until it changed from RAF to Army in the early 1990s.
Now the museum, as well as its dedicated fundraising group, Friends of Wattisham Station Heritage, is working on raising sufficient funds to bring home a Lightning fighter jet which was prominent in the 1960/70s. As well as the planes the museum has a photographic exhibition on the base’s history and decommissioned Lynx and Gazelle helicopters.
Pre-booking is required to visit the museum. Call 01449 678189.