U.S. air bases' future in doubt

By Dave GooderhamTHE future of Suffolk's two U.S. air bases was thrown into doubt last night after American defence chiefs revealed fleets of F-15 fighters could be moved to eastern Europe.

By Dave Gooderham

THE future of Suffolk's two U.S. air bases was thrown into doubt last night after American defence chiefs revealed fleets of F-15 fighters could be moved to eastern Europe.

Thousands of civilian jobs at RAF Lakenheath and neighbouring RAF Mildenhall could be lost if the worst fears of community leaders are realised, plunging the local economy into meltdown.

Some are desperately hoping the announcement that some or all of the F-15s at RAF Lakenheath could be sent to countries closer to Middle Eastern trouble spots will not spell the eventual closure of the bases.

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But others concerned about the future of the area predicted any move would mean the eventual closure of both American bases.

While Lakenheath chiefs were staying tight-lipped yesterday, sources in the USA said the Pentagon was proposing a host of changes to its military operations in Europe.

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The plans, which have been fiercely criticised in America, would see both Army divisions in Germany withdrawn and a number of F-15 fighters leaving Suffolk.

Although no firm decisions have been made, the proposals have sparked worries in the Lakenheath and Mildenhall communities.

One civilian member of staff, who asked not to be named, said: “The plans are potentially disastrous for everyone employed at Lakenheath and we are very worried about our jobs.

“Many hundreds of civilians from the across the area work on base and hundreds more are involved in sub-contracting work - particularly on the major construction projects going on at the moment.”

Forest Heath district councillor Bruce Rutterford, who lives in Lakenheath, added: “At the moment, we are just keeping our fingers crossed until we see or hear any more.

“If the F-15s did leave the base and RAF Lakenheath was forced to close, I would be very sorry.

“There would be a considerable affect on employment, but not so much on our shops as Americans don't use them as much as they used to.”

Mildenhall parish councillor Gerald Taylor-Balls believed it could spell doom for all U.S. Air Force personnel in Suffolk.

“This could be the start of the finish and the whole area should be concerned. Once they start moving planes out, it could snowball very quickly,” he said.

“I can't see all personnel and planes going, but you never know and it is a great concern.”

Pentagon policymakers told the New York Times their aim was to achieve maximum flexibility by sending U.S. forces closer to the Middle East, Central Asia and other potential battlegrounds.

Officials said the move - which has been under consideration for some time and also involves forces in Asia - was not related to the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is believed President Bush would have to formally approve the plans and the U.S. government would listen to any concerns.

While top level officials at RAF Lakenheath are aware of the proposals, base spokesman Lieutentant Ed Ekpoudom would only say: “A European base decision has not been finalised and we will not have any additional comments until this decision has been announced.”

Lt Ekpoudom refused to comment on the potential impact for the base or whether its future would be on the line.

Nick Cook, aviation expert for leading military journal Jane's Defence Weekly, believed the base could be forced to close if it lost the fighter planes.

“I am not surprised to hear about the plans and, if approved, I think this could be the end of the line for Lakenheath,” he warned.

“At the moment, there is a good reason for Lakenheath being there because they have planes with medium-range strike capabilities - without that, there would be no reason and I think in time it would close.

“That would mark the end of an era as Lakenheath has been a very significant base for the Americans since the end of the war.”

The plans come just a year after a task force visited RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall - sparking fears the bases would join forces.



n RAF Lakenheath, the largest U.S. Air Force base in England, currently has two types of fighter planes - the F-15E Strike Eagle and the F-15C Eagle.

n The strike eagle is considered to be the most advanced two-seat tactical fighter aircraft in the world. Its radar system allows air crews to pick out bridges and airfields from more than 80 miles away.

n Designed for low-altitude, high-speed and precision attacks, it can fly up to two-and-a-half times the speed of sound.

n The F-15C Eagle, from the base's 48th Fighter Wing, is armed with AIM-7 Sparrow missiles on the fuselage, AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on the inboard wing pylon and advanced medium range air-to-air missiles on the outboard wing pylon.

n When teamed together, the planes provide unrivalled air combat capability. It is believed both played a vital part in the Gulf War conflict in 1991 and then again in Iraq last year.

n Although the exact number of aircraft at RAF Lakenheath is not known, the U.S. Air Force lists an “active force” of almost 400 F-15s.

n The base is home to almost 5,000 U.S. military personnel and 2,000 American and British employees.

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