Decision not to close RAF MIldenhall will give long term assurance to the East Cambridgeshire economy
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The economy of East Cambridgeshire was given a boost after a decision by President Donald Trump led to the abandonment of plans to close RAF Mildenhall.
The American airbase was scheduled for closure in just seven years’ time but that has all changed.
By withdrawing almost 12,000 of his troops from Germany it means RAF Mildenhall has been deemed “crucial to operational efficiency” of American forces in Europe.
Hundreds of US air force personnel due to be transferred from RAF Mildenhall to Germany will stay at the Suffolk air base, the Pentagon has announced.
The base had been earmarked for closure from 2027 and, while there has been no formal announcement about this under the new plans, the development would suggest the Pentagon sees Mildenhall as having a long-term future.
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The development came as US Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced America would be transferring 11,900 personnel - from around 36,000 down to 24,000 - from Germany, with 6,400 returning to the United States and nearly 5,600 moved to other countries in Europe.
“The 2,500 airmen based in Mildenhall, who are responsible for aerial refuelling and special operations, and who had been scheduled to rebase to Germany, will remain in the United Kingdom, thus ensuring the uninterrupted readiness and responsiveness of these units,” he said.
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USAF Capt Shelley Spreier said the decision to keep RAF Mildenhall open was part of “the adjustments to our US troop presence”.
She said: “There are currently no plans to close RAF Mildenhall.”
She told the BBC that the Office of the Secretary of Defence had been working with Congress “and our Nato and European allies and partners on the adjustments to our US troop presence in Europe and has determined the positioning and operations of RAF Mildenhall are crucial to operational efficiency”.
John Griffiths, the leader of West Suffolk Council, welcomed the news.
He said: “The service personnel of Mildenhall and Lakenheath are our friends and neighbours and not only important to our community but play a part in supporting the local economy too.
“As the base will remain open, we, of course, will continue to welcome the 2,500 personnel based in Mildenhall, who are responsible for aerial refuelling and special operations, and will now remain in the UK, as they are an intrinsic and valued part of our local community.
“We look forward to continuing and developing further our close working relationship with all those involved in Mildenhall airbase and its future as this develops.”
The base was originally scheduled to close under a US military consolidation plan in Europe first announced in 2015.
But the plans changed because President Trump is unhappy at Germany’s reluctance to spend more on defence and contribute to NATO.
US personnel and their families from Mildenhall, and from its sister base at Lakenheath, are a familiar and welcome sight in nearby towns such as Soham, Mildenhall, Newmarket and Ely.
Also welcome is their spending power.
When the US Air Force first announced plans to wind down Mildenhall and expand nearby Lakenheath a 2016 study by district councils and the New Anglia and Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEPs concluded the bases were worth £700 million to the West Suffolk, Breckland and East Cambridgeshire economies.
Servicemen and women are paid comparatively well - a junior sergeant’s starting salary is equivalent to £21,500 sterling, rising to £30,000.
Most personnel live with their families off-base, in privately-rented accommodation. Robert Lewis, managing partner of Balmforth estate and letting agents in Mildenhall, said: “Property rental, cars and eating out are the big markets locally. They spend huge amounts on housing rental. As a whole the base needs around 5,000 properties.
“There’s around 1,500 on the base or just outside, so they need around 3,000 from the open rental market.
“We have around 400 properties rented to them - that’s between 30 per cent to 40 per cent of our turnover, worth between £300,000 and £400,000 a year, so of course we don’t want to see Mildenhall close.
“But if it did, I think it would be offset by the expansion of Lakenheath, and any closure would most likely be gradual. Long term it would also be offset by the strength of the A14 corridor - Mildenhall is 20 minutes from Cambridge. If you worked there you could buy a house here for around £200,000 - why would you buy the same for around £400,000 in Cambridge?”
Mark Knight, town manager for Mildenhall Town Council, said the Americans were part of local life and it would have a huge impact if they ever pulled out of Mildenhall.