RAF Mildenhall will close as part of sweeping European reorganisations, the US Defense Secretary has confirmed.
Operations at the USAF base, home to 3,200 military personnel, will be moved to other locations including Germany.
Meanwhile, two squadrons of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are to be stationed at RAF Lakenheath from 2020, with the expected addition of 1,200 troops.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed this afternoon that RAF Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth are all set to close.
The USAF anticipates around 2,600 personnel from RAF Mildenhall will be moved to other locations in the UK and Germany. The closure is also expected to reduce around 1,300 military and civilian positions.
General Frank Gorenc, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, said: “We understand these changes will have substantial impacts on the local areas, but we are dedicated to working closely with our community neighbors, defense partners, personnel and families to ease the impact of these transitions as much as possible.”
He added that the UK remains ‘an essential location for forward-based and ready forces’.
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock announced today he will chair a Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth (MAM) Working Group, collaborating with local councils, businesses, the Ministry of Defence and US representatives to ensure ‘no stone is left unturned in supporting Mildenhall and the surrounding area’.
Mr Hancock said: “Mildenhall has a long and proud history of strong relations with the United States Air Force. With this deep history in mind news of the proposed closure of Mildenhall will come as a shock to many.
“I will do everything in my power to support those affected, and to make sure that Mildenhall gets the support it needs to adjust.”
Leader of Forest Heath District Council James Waters said the closure of the base would significantly alter the ‘landscape’ of the district.
“We have enjoyed a strong relationship over the years with the American Air Force and are delighted that this is to continue,” he said. “The USAFE contributes significantly to the local economy so the expansion of RAF Lakenheath, and with it the U.S. Government’s commitment to the site as part of its long term plans, is very welcome news. But this happiness is obviously tempered by our sadness that Mildenhall is to close.
“Both announcements mean huge changes to the landscape of Forest Heath – but I am optimistic that with every change there are opportunities for reinvention, growth and investment. We will look to ensure not only that these opportunities are taken, but that any future plans for the bases are the right ones for the people of Forest Heath.
“We have done quite a lot of work to better understand what both bases provide for the local economy, so we will not be on the back foot.”
Cllr Waters said the district council would be working closely with the region’s Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to ensure its secures Government funding towards the RAF Mildenhall site’s ‘rebirth’.
Mildenhall Parish Council chairman John Bloodworth said: “It will have a devastating effect on Mildenhall, on employment, the economy and our schools. It is a very sad day for the town.”
Mildenhall parish councillor John Barker said: “The whole area is very much geared towards RAF Mildenhall and its employees using our facilities. To lose it will have a very important impact on the economic and social life of the town.”
UK Eastern Region MEP Richard Howitt said: “I am saddened by the RAF Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth closures being announced today and have always appreciated the courtesy of USAF personnel.”
Green Party Parliamentary candidate for West Suffolk, Niall Pettit, believes the base’s closure should be viewed as an opportunity for the area.
Life-long Mildenhall resident Mr Pettit said: “There will be a huge knock-on effect for jobs locally given that 3,200 US service personnel were based there and there will be thousands of people whose livelihoods will be partly or wholly dependent on the base.
“We need to have an open, public discussion as soon as possible so that the needs of local people are met.”
US military news website Stars and Stripes reported that RAF Mildenhall’s assigned KC-135s and the 352nd Special Operations Wing will move to Germany and the assigned RC-135s will be relocated in the U.K.
Moreton Hall-based freelance aviation journalist, Robert Archer, said his ‘gut instinct’ is that the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, the only permanent Wing of its kind in Europe, will relocate to Spangdahlem Air Base, in Germany.
“It’s a great big air base with lots of parking spaces and they could put them in there reasonably comfortably,” he said.
Mr Archer believes the base’s 95th Reconnaissance Squadron will stay in the UK, possibly relocationg to RAF Waddington, while the 501st Combat Support Wing (CSW) may be absorbed into another Wing overseas.
He added: “Nothing is going to happen here in a hurry - it will probably be over the course of two to three years. It’s going to have a terrific impact on jobs though, and the value of the locality.”
The Pentagon expects to save $500 million a year from the consolidations, which have allegedly been under review for more than a year.
Facilities in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal are also set to close.