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RAF Lakenheath: Future of air base unclear after it’s recommended for closure in report commissioned by United States government

PUBLISHED: 12:06 19 March 2014 | UPDATED: 12:07 19 March 2014

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The future of the country’s biggest US Air Force base has been plunged into more doubt after a report commissioned by the US government recommended it for closure.

RAF Lakenheath would be closed under two of the three options put forward by the global think tank RAND Corporation in its report for the US Department of Defense examining the world’s most powerful military’s presence overseas.

Thousands of military and civilian staff at Lakenheath live off-base in the local area, while it and neighbouring RAF Mildenhall pump more than £500million into the local economy every year having been stalwarts of west Suffolk since World War Two.

But the base’s 74-year affiliation with the area could soon be over as the US Air Force prepares for drastic spending cuts totalling billions of dollars, with RAND’s report recommending Lakenheath for closure under two options and relocating its resident 48th Fighter Wing to another base in the third, leaving the base open with just its intelligence and communication operations remaining.

James Waters, leader of Forest Heath District Council, said: “We’ve got a good broad base in our local economy, lots of expertise in working with the American bases and supporting local business, so I’m confident we’ll deal with whatever comes our way.

“Forest Heath has a really strong focus on our local economy so we won’t be waiting to see what happens - we’ll be in there talking to people, finding out what support we can give and doing all we can to make sure what’s happening at the bases isn’t to the detriment of our local area.”

Earlier this year this newspaper exclusively revealed that thousands of troops could leave both bases as part of the drive to cut costs, which Graham Abbey, chairman of Newmarket & District Chamber of Commerce, said would have a “huge impact” on the area.

“If you think about the employment locally, across both bases they employ a good few hundred local people, probably even into the thousands,” he added.

“It would also impact on the spend in the local community. The other thing in there as well is there’s lots of housing let out to the bases. There’s three major areas it would have an impact on, it would have a huge impact.”

RAND’s report is just one part of the ongoing European Infrastructure Consolidation (EIC) review underway by the US Department of Defense, the results of which are due to be published later this year.

A spokesman for United States Air Force Europe said: “Until the EIC is complete, it would be premature to discuss any changes to US Air Force basing in Europe.”

Closing RAF Lakenheath could save the air force $314m every year, according to the 487-page report. The base costs the US Air Force $211m annually.

RAF Mildenhall, which costs $222m every year, is home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing and is considered a key tactical base.

While it is left untouched by two of RAND’s three options, the other would see staff there return to the United States while it remained open as just a more modest refuelling base.

Master Sergeant Zachary Melin from RAF Lakenheath said yesterday: “There’s nothing new that we know at this stage. These decisions are all being made at a higher level.”

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