The first F-35 for Luke AFB arriving on 10 March 2014 (Image © Staff Sgt. Darlene Seltmann / USAF)

US Air Force F-35s to Europe in 2020, plus more changes

The US Air Force is planning to station two Lockheed Martin F-35 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath from 2020 on, according to statements released on Thursday 8 January. Furthermore, nearby Mildenhall airbase is to cease operations, with the local special operations C-130 Hercules aircraft and CV-22 Osprey tilt rotors moving to Germany.

At Lakenheath, the F-35s – 48 in number – are bound to replace two squadrons of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles, plus one squadron operating Boeing F-15C/D Eagles. The base houses the only remaining US strike aircraft in the United Kingdom. With the first F-15E Strike Eagle decommissioned last December, it’s no big surprise that the F-35 is being send to the UK as its replacement.

The 17th Luke Air Force Base F-35A Lightning II jet arrived at Luke AFB on 18 December 2014. The jet accompanied the first Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II to arrive here. (Image © Staff Sgt. Staci Miller / USAF)
This will be the sight at Lakenheath from 2020 on. (Image © Staff Sgt. Staci Miller / USAF)

Mildenhall has been a US Air Force tanker, transport and special operations hub for decades, and is currently home to 3,200 US personnel. The based CV-22 Ospreys and C-130s will head to Spangdahlem airbase in Germany, currently home to a squadron of US Air Force F-16s. For the Mildenhall based KC-135 tankers, Ramstein airbase in Germany seems the most likely destination.

For intelligence purposes, Mildenhall always housed some forward deployed RC-135 spying aircraft. Those operations will move to another airbase within the UK. A candidate is Fairford, where rumours about increased future activity were already going round.

The move to Spangdahlem of a substantial number of aircraft comes as a bit of a surprise. In the not-too-distant past, the US Air Force had some bad experiences with housing aircraft of different types and roles at the same airbase, and the question is how Spangdahlem will cope with the current F-16s and the additional slow moving C-130s and CV-22s, not to mentioned the C-17 transporters that frequently visit the base.

However, the decision may also be a sign of more things to come, such as the transfer of Spangdahlem’s F-16s further east or south. Poland is seen as a possible option. This would fit into a larger strategical picture, and would create a lot of room at Spangdahlem for its new inhabitants to move around in.

© 2015 editor Elmer van Hest

A Mildenhall based KC-135R Stratotanker.  (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Mildenhall based KC-135R Stratotanker. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A knife edge pass by a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle. Sometimes, life is simple. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Lakenheath based  F-15E in max ‘fuel to noise’ mode. The F-35 will replace the F-15E at Lakenheath from 2020 on. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
The Air Force's first operational CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft hovers upon arrival at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., Monday, March 20, 2006. (Staff Sgt. Markus Maier © USAF)
CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft will move from Mildenhall, UK, to Spangdahlem, Germany. (Staff Sgt. Markus Maier © USAF)