RAF Marham “very well placed” to get Joint Strike Fighter

There was an anxious period for Norfolk's RAF Marham and the 5,000 people who work there after the government launched a review of defence spending back in 2010.

At the time the Eastern Daily Press teamed up with MPs to launch a campaign which would ensure the government knew just how important the base was for the region's identity and economy, bringing in about �130m annually.

So there were celebrations last July when then defence secretary Liam Fox announced Marham would become the main home for the RAF's force of Tornado fighter jets.

But the decision only gave short-term security to Marham. To secure the base's longer-term prospects it would have to win a competition to become the home of the Tornado replacement – the F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The jet has a range of just under 1,400 miles, can reach a top speed of 1,056mph and will be the key component of the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier strike force.

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But the JSF will also need a land base for maintenance, training and other occasions when it is not needed at sea, and Marham is currently locked in a struggle with RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland to be named host.

In an interview with the Eastern Daily Press, defence minister Peter Luff reiterated the government's commitment to purchasing JSF aicraft.

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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.

''Proximity to training' will mean where they can actually fly. When I flew in the Typhoon recently, it was over the North Sea. You can go supersonic over the North Sea without disturbing populations.'

The minister highlighted the long list of divisions already based at Marham, including the fighter squadrons, the Tornado Forward Support Wing, the Depth Support Wing, the Base Support Wing, Number 3 RAF Force Protection Wing and the Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing.

He continued: '[Hosting JSF] will need the retraining of people, because it's a different airframe and there will be new equipment required to service the aircraft differently. But I would guess the significant infrastructure wouldn't change. A hangar is a hangar.

'What kit you put in the hangar would be the issue. So would training be required? Yes. The synthetic training arrangements, the simulators, are different obviously.

'That kind of stuff would be different, but the basic physical infrastructure would be likely very similar.'

He added: 'Marham is very well placed indeed.'

The Norfolk base was already boosted when the government announced that RAF Lossiemouth would host the Euro-Fighter Typhoon aircraft, raising questions over whether the Scottish base could cope with both that and JSF.

Mr Luff confirmed that the government would make a decision on JSF this year, adding that he had been constantly lobbied on the issue by South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss who had raised it 'literally every time' he saw her.

The minister was also keen to outline his party's achievements ahead of this week's local elections, but was philosophical about Tory chances.

'We are up against a high point and are defending a lot of seats, but the Labour Party is going to have to do very well to take any comfort from these elections.

'They are going to have to gain nationally at least 700 seats to feel they've done well.

'It's inevitable in a mid-term election that we will lose seats. The question is how many.'

Mr Luff said he was convinced that if the government stuck to its agenda of strict spending controls and a pro-business outlook, then current difficulties which had erupted since the budget would pass.

Labour has pulled away in the polls in the wake of a string of difficult budget stories, including infamous ones on pasties and the 'granny tax'.

More recently troubles have been deepened by the new recession and questions over whether culture secretary Jeremy Hunt broke the ministerial code during News Corp's attempted takeover of BSkyB.

Mr Luff remained adamant that the budget should have been more positively reported, highlighting that it saw thousands lifted out of paying income tax, including 75,000 next year in the eastern region.

'Somehow those messages have got lost, we can speculate on the reasons for that. Sometimes I think the Leveson Inquiry had something to do with it in my darker moments.'

The Leveson Inquiry was set up by the prime minister in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and may result in new legislation which restricts the media.

Mr Luff explained that he had noticed a 'cynicism' which he found 'deeply depressing' and a 'hostility' to all politicians in the national press, but argued that MPs of all parties went into politics to do the best for the British people.

'The people that believe in public service will be driven out of public service and I think the media have to be extremely careful about their agenda.

'I'm worried. But I pay tribute to local papers, because I don't see that in local papers and regional papers, I see the old standards of journalism where politicians are held to account and criticised for wrong-doing but celebrated when they make the right decisions,' he added.


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