F-35 in – Special ops out as part of US forces realignment in UK and Europe

As part of a major consolidation and realignments of US forces in Europe announced today by the Pentagon the Air Force plans to permanently deploy two of its future F-35 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath. US presence in RAF Mildenhall will be terminated, with assets and personnel supporting aerial recce units flying RC-135 moved to other bases in the UK. Aerial refuelling and special operations units will be transferred to Germany.

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Two US Air Force F-35A squadrons will be permanently based in RAF Lakenheath in the UK by 2020. Photo: Google Earth
US Air Force to leave RAF Mildenhall. Photo: Google Earth
US Air Force to leave RAF Mildenhall. Photo: Google Earth

The US military plans to reduce presence in Western Europe as part of a military infrastructure consolidation announced today at the Pentagon. The decision followed a thorough review of infrastructure requirements in Europe that considered ongoing force reductions, a changing security environment, the ongoing tough fiscal climate and technological advancements enabling better and efficiencies. “The adjustments and resulting efficiencies will help ensure the U.S. can maintain a persistent and capable presence in Europe.” Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove the commander of U.S. European Command said.

Under the planned consolidation US forces will leave fifteen military bases across Europe. The move will save Washington $500 million every year. The UK, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Portugal will see partial and full closures of bases, consolidation and closures of US facilities, as well as reduction in duty and civilian personnel.

The most significant changes are related to US Air Force operations. As part of the consolidation and realignments the Air Force plans to permanently deploy two of its future F-35 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath, currently operating F-15E strike fighters. While RAF Lakenheath will receive the new unit by 2020, US operations at RAF Mildenhall will close down and its 3,200 personnel removed. Located only few miles from Lakenheath, RAF Mildenhall currently supports US Air Force RC-135 electronic reconnaissance operations, special operations and aerial refueling. The intelligence operations will move to other bases in the UK (the RAF currently operates such aircraft). The KC-135s aerial tankers and the 352nd Special Operations Group, flying CV-22 Osprey and MC-130J will both relocate to Germany.

The realignment also includes military facilities in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Portugal, to be returned to the host nations.

Other European bases, in Bulgaria and Greece are not expected to change while US presence in certain locations such as Romania and Spain is even expected to grow, but these decisions are not part of the announced realignment. For example, the US has recently asked Spain to grant permanent status for the deployment of US troops at the joint-use Morón Air Base in Spanish Andalusia. According to recent Spanish media reports Washington has asked for Spanish permission to increase the presence of troops in Morón from the current 850 to over 3,000. These personnel are supporting US operations in Africa. Another Spanish base serving the US Navy is Rota, providing the home-port for several AEGIS cruisers and destroyers providing part of the European missile-defense network.

“The United States remains strongly committed to NATO and our forward presence of military forces in Europe,” general Breedlove said. “We have invested heavily in our European infrastructure in the last several years in order to ensure that we are ready and able to defend U.S. interests and meet our security commitments to our allies and partners now and in the future. “In the context of a challenging fiscal environment, we must seek greater efficiencies with respect to our presence in Europe and ensure we are focusing resources where they can have the greatest effect.” Breedlove explained that the move would create efficiencies that enable the United States to maintain a persistent and capable presence in Europe. He added the actions are part of a continued Defense Department effort to match infrastructure with operational requirements and military force structure.

Two US Air Force F-35A squadrons will be permanently based in RAF Lakenheath in the UK by 2020. Photo: Google Earth
Two US Air Force F-35A squadrons will be permanently based in RAF Lakenheath in the UK by 2020. Photo: Google Earth