Hopes rise for future of RAF Mildenhall as hundreds of US airmen to remain at base
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Hundreds of US air force personnel due to be transferred from RAF Mildenhall to Germany are to stay at the Suffolk air base, the Pentagon has announced.
New plans drawn up by the US military for its forces in Europe and approved by President Donald Trump last month mean 2,500 personnel will now remain in the UK.
The base had been earmarked for closure from 2027 and, while there has been no formal announcement about this under the new plans, the development would suggest the Pentagon sees Mildenhall as having a long term future.
The development came as US Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced America would be transferring 11,900 personnel - from around 36,000 down to 24,000 - from Germany, with 6,400 returning to the United States and nearly 5,600 moved to other countries in Europe.
“The 2,500 airmen based in Mildenhall, United Kingdom, who are responsible for aerial refuelling and special operations, and who had been scheduled to rebase to Germany, will remain in the United Kingdom, thus ensuring the uninterrupted readiness and responsiveness of these units,” he said.
The American authorities would not confirm whether the 2027 closure date was now off the table but a spokesman for the base said: “There are currently no plans to close RAF Mildenhall.”
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John Griffiths, the leader of West Suffolk Council, welcomed the news.
He said: “The service personnel of Mildenhall and Lakenheath are our friends and neighbours and not only important to our community but play a part in supporting the local economy too.
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“As the base will remain open we, of course, will continue to welcome the 2,500 personnel based in Mildenhall, who are responsible for aerial refuelling and special operations and will now remain in the UK, as they are an intrinsic and valued part of our local community.
“We look forward to continuing and developing further our close working relationship with all those involved in Mildenhall airbase and its future as this develops.”
The base opened in 1934 and was used by RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War.
It was taken over by the Americans in 1959 and around 3,100 personnel are now based there.
It is home to a number of units including the 100th Air Refuelling Wing and the 352nd Special Operations Wing.
Mildenhall was originally scheduled to close under a US military consolidation plan in Europe first announced in 2015.
But the plans have been changed because President Trump is unhappy at Germany’s reluctance to spend more on defence and contribute to NATO.
He believes Germany should not benefit economically from having thousands of American troops in its country when it does not pull its weight militarily.
How important is Mildenhall to the local economy?
While a question mark remains over the future of RAF Mildenhall, the news that more than 2,000 of its personnel would now be staying instead of being deployed to Germany could be taken as a good omen.
US personnel and their families from Mildenhall, and from its sister base at Lakenheath, are a familiar and welcome sight in nearby towns such as Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Newmarket.
Also welcome is their spending power.
When the US Air Force first announced plans to wind down Mildenhall and expand nearby Lakenheath a 2016 study by district councils and the New Anglia and Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEPs concluded the bases were worth £700 million to the West Suffolk, Breckland and East Cambridgeshire economies.
Servicemen and women are paid comparatively well - a junior sergeant’s starting salary is equivalent to £21,500 sterling, rising to £30,000.
Many live off-base, mainly in privately-rented accommodation.
Robert Lewis is a managing partner of Balmforth estate and letting agents in Mildenhall.
He said: “They spend huge amounts on housing rental. As a whole the base needs around 5,000 properties. There’s around 1,500 on the base or just outside, so they need around 3,000 from the open rental market.
“We have around 400 properties rented to them - that’s between 30% to 40% of our turnover, worth between £300,000 and £400,000 so of course we don’t want to see Mildenhall close.”
Mr Lewis said the American effect on the local economy was strong but selective: “Property rental, cars and eating out are the big markets locally.
“They don’t tend to spend much in places like Sainsburys because they have American supermarkets on base at US prices. White goods are also done mainly through the base.
“If it did close I think it would be offset by the expansion of Lakenheath, and any closure would most likely be gradual.
“Long term it would also be offset by the strength of the A14 corridor - Mildenhall is 20 minutes from Cambridge. If you worked there you could buy a house here for around £200,000 - why would you buy the same for around £400,000 in Cambridge?”
Mark Knight, the town manager for Mildenhall Town Council, said the Americans were part of local life.
“They’re always happy to help out in local events, we only have to ask them if we need help with an activity in the park or the town and if they can do it they will,” he said.
“You only have to walk through the town and you hear the accents. They spend in our shops and facilities, and there are so many local people working on the base.
“The base is an industry in itself so if the Americans ever do pull out it would have a huge impact on the local economy.”