Washington (AFP) – The US military will close a major air base in Britain and withdraw from 14 other installations across Europe as part of a reorganization of forces, the Pentagon said Thursday.
US operations at RAF Mildenhall in Britain will end as part of a money-saving consolidation plan that will result “in a slight decrease in our force levels” in the region but no loss to American military power, the Pentagon said.
Despite the closure of Mildenhall and smaller outposts elsewhere — including the withdrawal of 500 troops from Lajes Field in Portugal — the United States will still be well-placed to counter a more assertive Russia, officials said.
“In the end, this transformation of our infrastructure will help maximize our military capabilities in Europe and help strengthen our important European partnerships, so that we can best support our NATO allies and partners in the region,” Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
The reorganization will likely reduce the current contingent of 67,000 American forces in Europe by only about 1,200 troops, a defense official told AFP.
Some of the forces withdrawn from Britain and Portugal will be shifted to Germany and Italy, officials said.
The closure of Mildenhall, which is home to refueling tanker aircraft and special operations forces, will be offset in part by plans to station two squadrons of the new F-35 fighter jet at RAF Lakenheath within the next several years. The special operations unit at Mildenhall will be redeployed to Germany, officials said.
The moves will mean a net decrease of about 2,000 US military and civilian personnel in Britain, while in Germany, the American military presence will increase by several hundred troops over the next several years.
– Countering Russia –
The reorganization is expected to save the US government about $500 million a year, but officials insisted the moves would not in any way undercut America’s ability to defend NATO allies amid concern over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
The “adjustments do not diminish our ability to meet our commitments to allies and partners,” said Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
“In fact, these decisions will produce savings that will enable us to maintain a robust force presence in Europe,” he told a news conference.
The Pentagon’s announcement made a pointed reference to Ukraine, saying funds already approved by Congress will allow Washington to keep up joint exercises with eastern partners, pre-position additional hardware in Eastern Europe and “build the capacity of our newer allies as well as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.”
Britain played down the effect of the US decision to pull out of Mildenhall and instead focused on the plan to deploy F-35 squadrons to the country.
“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,” British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in a statement.
The move to end US operations at Mildenhall is “disappointing,” Fallon said. “However, we recognize that such changes are sometimes necessary.”
There are currently about 67,000 American troops stationed in Europe, including 40,800 in Germany, 10,700 in Italy and 8,700 in Britain.
The location of many bases and outposts date back to the aftermath of World War II and the tense years of the Cold War, and officials said new conditions and technology rendered some facilities obsolete.
The plan calls for pulling out US troops and equipment from two smaller British air bases as well, RAF Alconbury and RAF Molesworth.
In Portugal, two-thirds of the military and civilian personnel at Lajes Field will be withdrawn and operations scaled back.
A number of barracks, commissaries and other facilities in Germany will be closed, and a few sites in Belgium and the Netherlands also will be shut down.