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Mildenhall pullout 'disappointing'

The US decision to pull out of a major airbase in the UK is "disappointing", Defence Secretary Michael Fallon acknowledged after the Pentagon announced plans to scale down its military presence in Europe.

Under changes which will see overall reduction of about 2,000 US personnel in the UK, the Americans will leave RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

But Mr Fallon welcomed a decision to base F-35 fighters at nearby RAF Lakenheath from 2020, claiming it was a "resounding vote of confidence" from the United States.

As well as the end of the presence at Mildenhall, the US facilities at Alconbury and Molesworth in Cambridgeshire will be returned to the Ministry of Defence.

Some of the roles performed by units at those bases will be moved to a single facility at RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire.

The decisions on bases in Europe, aimed at saving the Pentagon around 500 million dollars (£330 million) a year, will result in 190 locally-hired staff in the UK losing their jobs, with around 370 Ministry of Defence (MoD) civil servants being redeployed.

The precise timing for their final withdrawal from RAF Mildenhall has still to be determined, but it is expected to correspond with the period in which the US plan to increase their presence at the adjacent Lakenheath base which will be home to the first European squadron of US F-35s.

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.

Mr Fallon said: "This resounding vote of confidence by the US is great news for the UK.

"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.

"I am delighted that the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and US Air Force will be operating this superb aircraft alongside one another from bases in the UK. It is an indication of the strength of our continuing shared commitment to transatlantic security.

"Of course, the US decision to drawdown its presence at RAF Mildenhall is disappointing. However, we recognise that such changes are sometimes necessary."

Business Minister Matthew Hancock, whose West Suffolk seat includes the Mildenhall and Lakenheath bases, said the news of the closure would be a "shock to many".

He 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. I have met with the Defence Secretary and others in Government to ensure we can work, together with the American administration, to support the community."

Mr Hancock said he would chair a Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth (Mam) working group involving businesses, councils, the MoD and US " to ensure no stone is left unturned in supporting Mildenhall and the surrounding area".

But he added: " Our tight alliance will not be lost with the Americans. RAF Lakenheath is set to expand under the promise that the Usaf will remain there for the long term.

"This expansion of Lakenheath is very welcome news, and will help fuel the local economy and create further jobs."

Shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker put the number of UK job losses at Mildenhall at 550.

He said: "We welcome the decision to station two F-35 aircraft squadrons at RAF Lakenheath from 2020. This provides an excellent opportunity to explore shared training and support between US and UK Air Forces, and underlines the strength of the UK's strategic relationship with our US partners.

"Nevertheless, the loss of 550 UK civilian jobs at RAF Mildenhall will be of great concern. The Government must now provide the reassurance these communities need and take concrete steps to help these individuals benefit from the future investment at nearby RAF Lakenheath."

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