A major U-turn by the government means RAF Marham is now the “obvious” choice to be the home of the next generation of hi-tech military jets, a Norfolk MP has said.

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Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced today ministers have reverted to plans by the former Labour government to acquire the jump-jet version of the US-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Under plans in the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, the coalition had intended to switch to the more capable F-35C carrier variant but Mr Hammond told the Commons the costs of fitting the necessary equipment had more than doubled to £2 billion.

The U-turn by ministers re-enforces the argument that the eventual home for the JSF needs to be RAF Marham, according to South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss,

Norfolk’s last RAF flying base is currently battling with RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to become the new home for the JSF.

The fighter aircraft will need a land base for maintenance, training and other occasions when it comes into service in around 2020 and replaces the Tornado GR4 planes, currently based at Marham.

Ms Truss said: “The fact remains that the technical expertise and know how is based at RAF Marham.

“The engineering and maintenance facilities at the base would cost an estimated £50 million to move, something certainly not worth considering in this current economic climate.

“The secretary of state has confirmed the choice of the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant of the JSF has the support of the principal allies the French and US. Greater collaboration with the Americans means that the close proximity to USAF Lakenheath, which is expected to be the main European home for the American JSF, makes Marham the obvious choice.

“The STOVL-variant of the JSF also has a shorter range and lower payload. The Libya campaign illustrated clearly how strategically located Marham is with aircraft being able to reach the forward operating base without the need to re-fuel.”

Questions have also already been raised about RAF Lossiemouth over whether the Scottish base will be able to cope with the Euro-fighter Typhoon and the JSF.

RAF Marham is one of Norfolk’s 10 largest employers and has in the region of 5,000 people and brings around £130m to the area’s economy.

Marham’s short-term future was only guaranteed by the government last year following the successful Make it Marham campaign, which was spearheaded by the EDP.

Ms Truss added: “The secretary of state has also confirmed that the Ministry of Defence will receive one JSF for trials this summer, with sea trials taking place in 2017 and planes flying from the aircraft carrier in 2018.

“He further confirmed there would be 12 aircraft operational at any one time, with a total fleet of 36. He emphasised that the responsibility of the JSF will be shared between the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce.

“Norfolk and the local community lobbied effectively for the base to remain the home of the Tornado aircraft and now the long-term focus is on RAF Marham becoming the future home for the JSF.

“I will certainly ensure the government receives this message loud and clear and will be pressing for an early decision, especially since trials will be commencing this summer.”

In an interview with the Eastern Daily Press last month, defence minister Peter Luff confirmed that the government would make a decision on JSF this year.

He said: “Decisions on JSF basing will take into consideration the following factors – current infrastructure, improvements that will be needed, proximity to training areas, operational costs and the impact on the local area.”

The minister later added: “Marham is very well placed indeed.”

The government U-turn comes after Prime Minister David Cameron strongly criticised the original decision by Labour to choose the jump-jet.

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has said the government’s “chaotic” handling of its carrier policy totally undermined its credibility on defence.

“This is a personal humiliation for David Cameron who will to return to Labour’s policy, which he previously condemned,” he said.

“This is a strategically vital element of the equipment programme on which our security and thousands of jobs depend and yet ministers have treated it with hubristic incompetence, wasting hundreds of millions at a time of painful defence cuts.

“We need a plan to restore Britain’s power and prestige at sea, which was so damaged by the discredited defence review, and there are crucial questions on cost and capability ministers must answer.”

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “This is an eloquent demonstration of what is seriously wrong with UK defence procurement.

“But the so-called ‘jump-jet’ aircraft will provide an effective replacement for the Harrier jets which have been prematurely retired from service.

“They will provide much more flexibility on operations but the change of policy must have cost much-needed resources for a department desperately trying to cope with damaging cuts.”

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