Marham all but confirmed as base for Lightning II

RAF Marham's designation as the home of the British military's new Joint Strike Fighter aircraft has been all but officially confirmed today.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources told the Eastern Daily Press that secretary of state Philip Hammond and other ministers had it 'very strong in the mind' that the Norfolk base would take the role.

However, in order to officially finalise the decision a basing review exercise, currently underway, must first reach its conclusion.

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) planes, designed by US firm Lockheed Martin, are known in the States as the F35. But from now on the British owned jets will be known as 'Lightning II' aircraft.

Mr Hammond last night spoke to the EDP from Forth Worth, in Texas, which he was visiting with an MoD delegation in order to see the British government's first jet.

He said: 'I am delighted to have taken delivery of our first Lightning II. We don't need to make a final decision on UK basing yet, but Marham is the most logical choice.'

RAF Marham had been competing with one other UK airbase, RAF Lossiemouth is Scotland, for the honour of housing the Lightning II.

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However Marham's chances were boosted when Lossiemouth was designated as the new home of the RAF's Euro-fighter Typhoon fleet, raising a question over whether it had the capability to host both types of jet.

Earlier this year defence minister Peter Luff told the EDP that Marham was 'very well placed' to become the base to host the JSF.

Then hopes were raised even further when earlier this week another defence minister, Nick Harvey, let slip in the House of Commons that it would 'not be practical' to locate JSF at Lossiemouth because of the Typhoon's presence there.

The EDP has been campaigning for Marham, which employs 5,000 people in Norfolk, to win the JSF role as it would secure the base's future and boost Norfolk's economy.

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss, in whose constituency the base is situated, has been leading efforts to lobby defence ministers over the issue.

She said: 'I'm obviously delighted that the Ministry of Defence have put out a statement saying that Marham is likely to be the base of the Joint Strike Fighter.

'The argument has been made for some time that Marham is the best base from a strategic and economic point of view. It seems the government has taken that on board and made the right decision.

'I will of course continue to make the case to ensure that Marham is absolutely confirmed as the final decision.'

The basing review exercise that must be carried out is looking at strategic, economic, technical and geographical issues, but MoD sources told the EDP that it was unlikely it could come to any other conclusion than Marham being named the designated site.

Elizabeth Quintana is senior research fellow for air power and technology at think-tank the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

The military expert said that while the bureaucratic review process needed to be completed, the strong indication of Marham's designation now would allow preparations to begin so defence chiefs could more easily meet their target of having Lightning II operational from the UK mainland by 2018.

At that point the jets will also commence flight trials off the Royal Navy's HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

Ms Quintana said: 'One of the reasons that they would choose Marham is that they already have the Tactical Imagery Air Wing based there and JSF will have a significant intelligence gathering capability.

'One of the other big reasons is that RAF Lakenheath is nearby and that is where the largest United States Air Force base is just down the road.

'There have been discussions between the RAF and USAF about a joint maintenance capability and if they were reasonably closely located that would make it easier.'

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