What would be the impact on our region if RAF Lakenheath was to close?
12:10 21 March 2014
With a report commissioned by the US government casting doubt on the long-term future of RAF Lakenheath, the EDP assesses the potential impact on the region if the base were to close.
For almost seven decades RAF Lakenheath has resounded to the roar of US military aircraft.
Giant B-29 bombers, soaring Phantoms, U2 spy-planes, the F-111 and more recently F-15 aircraft, have operated from an expanse of north Suffolk which has Uncle Sam’s stamp firmly on it. The US air force presence is the continuation of a line reaching back to the Second World War when thousands of Americans flew from East Anglian airfields on missions over Europe, with many air crew never returning.
As the global map changed during the Cold War, bases such as RAF Lakenheath stood on the front line, as they have more recently with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall remained the two key US bases in the region, an important part of the fabric of East Anglia, making a massive economic – and cultural – contribution to the community in terms of jobs and money spent locally.
Yet that link now seems under threat, with a think-tank report prepared by the RAND Corporation for the US government indicating that RAF Lakenheath could close as the American military re-thinks its global strategy and presence.
Flying from Lakenheath began during the First World War with the Royal Flying Corps but was abandoned when the Armistice was signed. In 1940, the Air Ministry revived the station as a decoy airfield with false lights and runways to divert Luftwaffe attacks from RAF Mildenhall but before long RAF Lakenheath was transformed into an operational station.
In 1941 hard runways and hard standing for 36 aircraft were built, along with hangars as the Short Stirling bombers of 149 Squadron and other RAF squadrons used Lakenheath.
Late in the war work began to upgrade it to a Very Heavy Bomber airfield for B-29 Superfortresses, though by the time construction was complete the war was over and RAF Lakenheath was mothballed until November 1948 when operational control was transferred to USAFE
The B-29s arrived at that point and were followed later by B-50 Superfortresses, B-47 Stratojets and at the height of the Cold War, the Lockheed U-2.
There was almost a nuclear disaster at Lakenheath on July, 27, 1956 when a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at Lakenheath containing three MK-6 nuclear weapons while on a routine training mission. The bombs did not go off as a result of the crash and ensuing fire, but four crewmen died.
The option of closing Lakenheath is part of the ongoing European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) review under way by the US Department of Defence, with the results due to be published later this year.
RAF Lakenheath is the UK’s biggest US air force base and home to 48th Fighter Wing, with the F-15 strike aircraft and Pave Hawk helicopters. It was at the centre of a tragedy in January after a Pave Hawk crashed on Cley Marsh killing four air crew.
Figures show that closing RAF Lakenheath, which has almost 4,500 servicemen and women supported by nearly 2,000 British and American civilians, could save the US air force $314m (£190m) every year.
The 487-page RAND report recommends Lakenheath for closure under two options and suggests relocating its resident 48th Fighter Wing to another base in the third, leaving just its intelligence and communication operations.
The Liberty Wing
It was French president Charles de Gaulle’s decision to remove all non-French nuclear-capable forces from his country which saw the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing – known as the Liberty Wing – arrive at RAF Lakenheath with the F-100D.
In the 1970s, the 48th TFW started its conversion to the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, with the aircraft being transferred from the 81st TFW at RAF Bentwaters and later the F-111s arrived, which participated in the bombing of Libya in 1986. The wing was also the first F-111 fighter unit to deploy to the First Gulf War.
Lakenheath received its first McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagles in 1992, which in recent years have been deployed flying combat missions and providing combat support in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mildenhall – home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing – is left untouched by two of RAND’s three options, though the third does propose most staff returning to the United States and it being retained only as a more modest refuelling base.
While the closure of Lakenheath would save the US government money, the economic fall-out for East Anglia would be significant.
US personnel not only live and work in the area, they shop locally, their presence underpins the infrastructure, has an impact on schooling and local commerce and touches on many aspects of community life.
Although the RAND report is only a series of provisional options, which the US military is reluctant to comment on, local authorities are already planning for the worst-case scenario.
Forest Heath District Council, which covers the area occupied by Lakenheath and Mildenhall, works closely with the US bases on the subject and has been aware for some time that there may be a strategic change. With the latest announcement, it will be stepping up its focus and examining in more detail any potential impact on schools, local economy and infrastructure.
Council leader James Waters said: “It is the nature of defence to keep operational requirements constantly under review, something we understand from our long and close relationship with USAF Lakenheath and USAF Mildenhall.
“Changes do raise concern because so many local people are involved with the bases, but nothing is definite and we will deal with it if it happens. Our role is to drive economic growth and create resilience to help meet changes, so we will work alongside the bases to understand how we can help to develop new opportunities.”
East Anglia has survived base closures in the past – it is a natural part of being a military region: Norfolk most recently, with RAF Coltishall in 2004 as well as bracing itself for a potential economic impact when RAF Marham was threatened with closure three years ago.
But with so few bases left, the impact of subsequent closures is more keenly felt in the community.
In addition to the local spend by personnel, the US military often procures locally-produced goods and services and is acutely aware of the economic impact its presence has. That is most starkly illustrated in the USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe) Economic Impact Analysis 2012, published in April 2013.
It details just how much money is injected into the regions surrounding its bases across Europe and shows that RAF Lakenheath pumps $602.2m (£365m) into the region’s economy every year, while RAF Mildenhall injects $362.2m (£220m).
Data also shows that Lakenheath creates almost 2,200 indirect jobs at a value nearing $100m but it is the personnel – military and civilian – who are the big spenders.
The amount spent in the local community on things like rent, local restaurants, entertainment and other off-base activity by Lakenheath’s military personnel is $214.2m (£130m), with US civilians spending $43.6m (£26.5m) and local base-employed civilians spending $46.8m (£28m).
Off-base spending by RAF Lakenheath’s on-base units on construction-related elements is $110.1m (£67m), $24.1 (£15m) on services and $65.8m (£40m) on materials, equipment and supplies.
That makes Lakenheath the second biggest spender of any US base in Europe, beaten only by Ramstein in Germany. Business leaders are concerned about any potential closure impact, though stress the RAND document covers a range of Europe-wide options. “We can’t comment on reports that are only speculative but it is important to reinforce the fundamental role USAF Lakenheath plays, not only in the Suffolk economy but across the whole of the East of England,” said Miles Vartan, from the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.
“Thousands of USAF Lakenheath staff live and work in the area and are valued members of local communities. They pump more than £500m into the local economy and support many other businesses and jobs.
“We are extremely proud that USAF Lakenheath is part of the way of life here in the East of England. The base and its contribution to Suffolk plc is a key part of our history, our everyday lives now and our future.”
West Suffolk Conservative MP Matthew Hancock has declined to comment on the report at this stage, though he is visiting RAF Lakenheath today on a visit that has been arranged for some time. But the subject of the base’s future will inevitably arise.
While the US footprint in East Anglia has shrunk significantly in recent decades, with the closure of other US bases, the loss of RAF Lakenheath would be a more symbolic blow. As a major bastion of the US presence in East Anglia its loss would be deeply felt, not only in stark economic terms, but in the severance of a link between the eastern region and the US that has run deep and strong throughout world war, Cold War and modern conflict.