US military withdraws from three RAF bases

US to vacate RAF Alconbury, RAF Molesworth  and RAF Mildenhall

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The US military is to pull out of three British bases, including a major airbase that is home to 3,200 personnel and has hosted US Air Force aircraft since the start of the Cold War.

The move has been described as “disappointing” by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon after the US Department of Defence confirmed it would be handing back RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk to the Royal Air Force.

There are fears for 190 locally employed civilian staff at the base, however Mr Fallon welcomed the decision by the Pentagon to base two squadrons of new F-35 fighters at nearby the RAF Lakenheath base from 2020, claiming it was a “resounding vote of confidence” from the United States.

RAF Mildenhall is currently home to air-to-air refuelling aircraft and a fleet of CV-22 Ospreys special operations aircraft, but at various times during the Cold War was home to fighter jets, nuclear-armed bombers and the U2 spy plane.

The base closure, which is expected between 2018 and 2020, is part of a major shakeup of US forces in Europe which will also see US forces leave the smaller communications bases at RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said he understood the closures, part of a move to save £320m a year across Europe, would mean job losses as the US gave up its leases on the RAF owned bases.

Tony Osborne, the London Bureau Chief of Aviation Week, said: “As home to the Unites States Air Force’s only permanent Europe-based refuelling squadron, RAF Mildenhall has been vital strand in US operations for decades, but it’s also a major employer and source of income for the local community and the base’s closure will be sorely felt. “

The numbers of US military personnel in Britain - currently 8,700 - will drop by 2,000 under the proposals but they will be bolstered by 1,200 personnel with the deployment of the F-35 aircraft from 2020.

Mr Fallon said: "Our historic relationship with the US remains as strong as ever, and their decision to base their first European F-35 squadrons in the UK clearly reflects the closeness of our partnership, as well as the American commitment to Nato and Europe. Of course, the US decision to draw down its presence at RAF Mildenhall is disappointing. However, we recognise that such changes are sometimes necessary."

The Lakenheath decision means that US and UK F-35 Lightning II squadrons will be based in East Anglia, with the RAF's jets due to be based at Marham in Norfolk. The aircraft has proved controversial though with large cost overruns and questions over its capabilities, recently it emerged the aircraft’s cannon would not be functional for several years after it enters service.