An exciting era as RAF Lakenheath prepares for the arrival of the F-35A Lightning
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
A new era is on the horizon for one of the region’s biggest military bases as it prepares itself for the arrival of the world’s most advanced fighter jet.
The first F-35A Lightning IIs will touch down at RAF Lakenheath in late 2021, in a programme which will see a total of 54 jets, around 1,200 airmen and women, and between 60 and 100 civilian personnel, arrive at the US Air Force base.
Currently contractors are identifying initial requirements for building sizes with a primary contractor planned to be on board by the summer.
The large-scale construction project – overseen by the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation - will kick-off in early 2019.
An F-35 campus, built to minimise space and bring everything together in one place, will include a maintenance facility, two six-bay hangers, 42 parking spots for the planes, a flight simulator building with six simulators and a diner.
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F-35 programme integration officer Lt Col William Vause has been working on the project since September 2015.
He said the base was “very fortunate” to welcome the jets, which will form the first two US F-35 fighter jet squadrons in Europe. They will become part of the 48th Fighter Wing.
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“In the next four or five years you have 1,200 individuals coming in but think about that logistical piece that is going to come in just to support those facility constructions,” he said.
“Think about all the opportunities it is going to provide for the small sub-contractors with large contractors coming in a saying, ‘Hey I need this done’.
“I think there is plenty of economic opportunity that is going to be here in the short term because of the F-35 and that development going in.”
An additional dormitory for 144 personnel and equipment stores will also be built.
The majority of the F-35 construction is scheduled to be completed by 2022/23.
The F-35s will fly alongside the F-15 Strike Eagle and F-15C Eagle of the 492nd and the 493rd Fighter Squadrons. The F-15C is set to leave the base in the future.
Lt Col Vause said the base is learning lessons from close links to RAF Marham which is undergoing a £500m construction project to ready itself for the arrival of the F-35B.
US Air Force in East Anglia
The arrival of the state-of-the-art F-35 looks to have secured the future of RAF Lakenheath as a US Air Force Base.
Nearby RAF Mildenhall, home to the 100th Air Refuelling Wing, is earmarked to close in 2024.
The base is one of the largest single employers in Forest Heath and will see 3,200 airmen leave the area.
The 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons, based at RAF Lakenheath are currently being relocated to Aviano Air Base in Italy, because of its more strategic and economically suited location.
The USAFE (United States Air Forces in Europe) Economic Impact Analysis 2012, published in April 2013, detailed RAF Lakenheath pumps £365m into the region’s economy every year, while RAF Mildenhall injects £220m.
US service personnel have formed close links with the local communities.
Lt Col William Vause said: “I know from a US service member that we have great support from the local community and we are just very appreciative that we have the opportunity to one, live in England and two, operate out of RAF Lakenheath.”
The F-35A Lightning II
It is the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter.
Its advanced stealth allows pilots to go into areas without being detected by radars which can detect older fighters.
Missions traditionally performed by specialized aircraft — air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — can now be executed by a squadron of F-35s.
Each jet costs nearly £100m.