During the Second World War the UK allowed the US free access to a number of RAF airfields. US forces have remained in a number of these and other installations which have continued to be used in US military operations and intelligence gathering.
After WW2 the USAF presence remained as part of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). The legal basis for the US Visiting Force in the UK is primarily the NATO Status of Forces Agreement of 1951 (SOFA) and the Visiting Forces Act of 1952.
The Status of Forces Agreements allow a sending State’s military forces to operate within, and at the consent of, the host state. They also provide for the status of military headquarters established in other countries. They may be bilateral or multilateral and there are no formal requirements as to the form, content, length, or title that a SOFA should take.
The Visiting Forces Act incorporates the SOFA into UK law. Together, they provide the overarching framework for the stationing of US forces in the UK. The provisions of the VFA were extended to NATO military headquarters in the UK by the International Headquarters and Defence Organisations Act 1964 and the VFA was extended in 1995 by the Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement to cover the forces of states who are not members of NATO but had agreed to participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace plan.
US 8th Air Force bases in the UK in use during WW2
The removal of France from NATO in 1966 by President de Gaulle probably encouraged the US military to keep their bases in the UK and even enhance their military presence here. So, in the 1990s there were something like 100 US manned facilities in the UK although now this has dropped to about 13 or so. Of course, the US presence has not gone unchallenged.
Writing in the Guardian in 2014, Seamus Milne said:
“It’s almost never discussed in the political mainstream. But thousands of foreign troops have now been stationed in Britain for more than 70 years. There’s been nothing like it since the Norman invasion. With the 15-month Dutch occupation of London in 1688-9 a distant competitor, there has been no precedent since 1066 for the presence of American forces in a string of military bases for the better part of a century.
They arrived in 1942 to fight Nazi Germany. But they didn’t head home in 1945; instead, they stayed on for the 40-odd years of the cold war, supposedly to repel invasion from the Soviet Union. Nor did they leave when the cold war ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, but were invited to remain as the pivot of the anti-Soviet Nato alliance.
A generation later, there are still nearly 10,000 US military personnel stationed in Britain, based in dozens of secretive facilities. Most of them are in half a dozen major military bases – misleadingly named RAF this or that, but effectively under full American control: Lakenheath, Croughton, Mildenhall and Molesworth among others – along with the National Security Agency and missile defence bases such as Menwith Hill in Yorkshire.
British troops are now finally being pulled out of Germany. There is not the slightest suggestion, however, that US forces will be withdrawn from Britain in the forseeable future. But what are they doing here? Who are they supposed to be defending us from?”
Major US Air Fields in the UK Currently in Use
Major US Air Fields in the UK currently in use
Despite their names and status as Royal Air Force (RAF) stations, these bases primarily support United States Air Force (USAF) operations.
RAF Mildenhall was opened in the early 1930s to provide British air capabilities in Europe. It saw significant service throughout World War II as an RAF bomber base but was deactivated immediately following the war.
However, it was reopened in 1950 to support B-29 bombers, and subsequently B-50 and B-47 long-range bombers. By the late 1950s, the runways were no longer capable of supporting newer aircraft and control of operations was transferred to the USAF, who used the base mainly for airlift and transport purposes for several years. Throughout the 1970s, the base was also home to several reconnaisance wings operating over the Soviet Union and the Middle East.
Following the Cold War, Mildenhall has been host to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, the only air refueling wing in Europe. Mildenhall essentially serves as a bridge between the US and Europe and the Middle East, allowing aircraft to refuel mid-air or resupply on the airfield before continuing to their destination.
Protest at Mildenhall – peace camp to protest the use of the airfield during the war in Afghanistan
Wherever there is a military base there is usually some opposition and there has been significant protest at Mildenhall – especially during US military operations in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.
On 8 January 2015, the United States Department of Defense announced that operations at Mildenhall were to end end and the air refueling tanker fleet will be transferred to the US Air Base at Ramstein in Germany. On 18 January 2016, the British Ministry of Defence announced that the site is to be sold.
RAF Alconbury – located in Cambridgeshire, in the SE of the UK. Originally one of many camouflaged satellite bases built to “hide” aircraft in when attacked. In 1942, the base was handed over to the US Eighth Air Force and Alconbury became an American base for Liberators flying bombing missions. In December 1942 the Liberators were replaced by B-17s and Alconbury became known as Station 102, fulfilling a variety of roles until it was handed back to the RAF in November 1945.
In 1953 the airfield was reactivated as one of the bases for the US 3rd Air Force, eventually assuming a Cold War role as the home to various reconnaissance squadrons – the 1st and 10th Squadrons of the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing. In 1976, the airfield acquired an additional role as the home of a tactical fighter training squadron flying Northrop F-5E Tigers. Soon after the airfield was substantially remodelled with the construction of 28 hardened aircraft shelters.
The base now hosts the 501st Combat Support Wing and the 423rd Air Base Group, providing mission support to enable US and NATO war fighters to conduct flying operations during expeditionary deployments, theatre munitions movements, global command and control communications to forward deployed locations, support for theatre intelligence operations and joint/combined training. The US operations at Alconbury are also due to be moved on and the base closed.
RAF Molesworth – also in Cambridgeshire with a similar history to Alconbury. However, the decision in 1980 to house 64 cruise missiles at Molesworth made the station a focus of protest.
On 28 December 1981, members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation on a pilgrimage from Iona Abbey to Canterbury Cathedral established a peace camp at the south-east gate of the station to protest against the planned deployment.
The camp became a link in a Europe-wide network of centres for NVDA in opposition to NATO plans to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles. In the summer of 1983, the caravans and buses of the Peace Camp were evicted from land adjoining the southeast gate of RAF Molesworth. Only a small brick and concrete chapel called Eirene (Greek for peace) remained, surrounded by barbed wire and for a time floodlit and guarded by the police 24 hours a day to prevent protesters from entering. Eirene was suddenly demolished on the day of the 1986 United States bombing of Libya.
In August 1984, part of the then-unfenced airfield was occupied by a peace camp – ‘Rainbow Village’ until 6 February 1985, when 1,500 troops and police were deployed in an operation described as “perhaps the most dramatic occurrence in all the peace and anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980s” in the UK. A 3m high Dannert wire fence was rapidly erected behind which a 5 metres wide no-man’s land concrete roadway was constructed along the line of the fence and finally a 3m high Weldmesh steel fence beyond that. Floodlights were installed every 100 yards and MoD Police and armed guards were to patrol the fence 24 hours a day. Secretary of State for Defence Michael Heseltine arrived by RAF helicopter, wearing a camouflage jacket over his suit. The roads around the station were blocked by lorries carrying construction materials and fencing. The cost of the operation to clear and fence RAF Molesworth was in the order of £6.5 million.
The protest at Molesworth in the 1980s
Molesworth was the focus of large protests at Easter 1985 and February 1986, during one of which Bruce Kent from CND attempted to cut through the fence in full view of the police. A protest presence remained outside the station, recording the movement of cruise missiles, until 1990.
On 11 January 1990, the RAF announced the construction of the US European Command’s new Joint Analysis Center (JAC) and also based here are NATO’s Intelligence Fusion Center (IFC), Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), National Imaging and Mapping Agency (NIMA), government contractors, National Imaging and mapping Agency (NIMA), Africa Command (AFRICOM) and other organizational units to provide intelligence support for US and NATO missions in the Middle East and the Balkans and provide global assistance in the War on Terror.
This is another base that is due to close and the JAC operations will be transferred to the US base at Croughton.
Mildenhall, Alconbury and Molesworth to close – as part of a US programme to save £320m ($500m) a year across Europe. The Pentagon said the loss of about 2,000 US military and civilian personnel is due to relocation away from Mildenhall, but will be offset by the addition of about 1,200 people stationed permanently at Lakenheath and others at Croughton (see below).
The US defence review of 2015 announced that the US Air Force base would close in 2023. However, a report in the 17th April 2017 edition of Stars and Stripes ( a US Department of Defense newspaper) says that the political and military climate has changed since the decision was taken two years ago nder the administration of President Obama, now under President Trump, it suggests, the Pentagon is looking at the plans again.
RAF Lakenheath – situated 7.6 km NE of Mildenhall, was used as a decoy in WW2 and selected for upgrading to a Very Heavy Bomber airfield. It is one of three RAF airfields that was prepared to receive US Army Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortresses which were tentatively planned to replace some of Eighth Air Force’s Third Air Division Consolidated B-24 Liberator groups in the spring of 1945.
As the largest US Air Force base in the UK, Lakenheath hosts the 48th Fighter Wing and supports 3 combat-ready squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagle and F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft. Two squadrons of US F-35 jets (48 of them) will be arriving there by 2020 – the first in Europe.
Almost 4,500 servicemen and women, supported by nearly 2,000 British and American civilians, work for the wing, which includes a separate base at nearby RAF Feltwell. The base is home to F-15 fighter planes, as well as Pave Hawk helicopters, which are used for both humanitarian and military missions including civil search and rescue, medical evacuation and disaster response.
Operations from its runways have included the US bombing of Libya in 1986, code-named the El Dorado Canyon raids. The wing was also the first F-111 fighter unit to deploy to the First Gulf War during the operations code-named Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
It has played a role since 2001 flying combat missions and providing combat support in Operations Enduring Freedom – the name given by the US government to its military operations in Afghanistan – and Iraqi Freedom, the code name for the Iraq war.
Protest at Lakenheath
US nuclear weapons had been held at Lakenheath since the beginning of the Cold War and incidents have been reported that could have had disasterous consequences. For example:
- July 27, 1956: A B-47 bomber crashed into a nuclear weapons storage facility at the Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk, England, during a training exercise. The nuclear weapons storage facility, known as an “igloo,” contained three Mark 6 bombs. Preliminary exams by bomb disposal officers said it was a miracle that one Mark 6 with exposed detonators sheared didn’t explode. The B-47′s crew was killed.
- Jan 16,1961: The under-wing fuel tanks of a US fighter were jettisoned by mistake at Lakenheath. The fuel and a hydrogen bomb mounted beneath the plane was engulfed in flames. It was later discovered that a flaw in the wiring of these bombs could allow excessive heat to bypass the weapon’s safety mechanisms and cause a nuclear detonation.
RAF Fairford – one of one of 2-3 airfields outside US capable of handling B2 Stealth bombers, with 2 special hangers and another for re-doing the special anti-radar paint on the planes.
In June 2017 it was reported that, amid growing tensions with Russia, the US had deployed its full range of strategic bombers to Britain for the first time in history. Two B-2 stealth bombers, three B-52H Stratofortress aircraft and three B-1B Lancers were exhibited at the Fairford Air Show. Apparently, the Pentagon considered it necessary to remind Moscow of America’s strike capability.
B2 Stealth Bomber at Fairford
The B2 Runway at Fairford
There have also been rumours that the base may move from its present low-key status to a more active base in the future.
Protest at Fairford
RAF Greenham Common – southeast of Newbury, Berkshire, about 55 miles (89 km) west of London is no longer a military base but certainly worth a mention.
Opened in 1942, it was used by both the RAF and the USAF during the Second World War and the USAF during the Cold War.
It was used to house US nuclear weapons during the cold war and some incidents have been reported:
- Jan 31, 1958: the left rear wheel casting of a B-47 failed during an exercise alert. It is not clear where the airbase was situated but Greenham Common Airbase is a possibility. The aircraft carried one weapon in strike configuration and the tail struck the runway rupturing a fuel tank. The aircraft caught fire and burned for seven hours. The high explosive contents did not detonate, but there was some contamination in the immediate area of the crash. The wreckage and the asphalt beneath it were removed and the runway washed down.
- Sept 25, 1959: a US aircraft in trouble dropped two large fuel tanks shortly after take-off at Greenham Common, one hit a parked aircraft nearby which had a nuclear bomb on board. Two people were killed in the resulting fire which took 16 hours to extinguish. The area around the base was radioactively contaminated. The incident remains secret until uncovered by CND in 1996.
The base is probably most famous for the protest that was women’s movement that developed from the peace camps established from 1981 in protest at the deployment of cruise missiles there.
Dancing on the silos on New Year’s Day viewed by US style police cars on the base.
Their 19-year protest drew worldwide media and public attention, often due to the peace women cutting through the fences of the base and even dancing on the silos. They would also blockade the entrances and track the missiles.
30,000 women protestors “embraced the base” in 1982 and 50,000 did the same a year later.
There were numerous blockades of the gates and the nuclear cruise missile convoys
As a consequence of the protests here and across Europe, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev eventually signed a treaty that removed a whole range of US the Soviet short range nuclear weapons from Europe. On 11 September 1992, the USAF returned RAF Greenham Common to the Ministry of Defence and on 9 February 1993 the Greenham Common air base was declared surplus to requirements by the Secretary of State for Defence. In 1997 Greenham Common was designated as public parkland. The common was made a site of site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1985.
The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier
Not all military bases of importance are air fields or depositories of tanks, guns or other field equipment. In 1986 a book by Duncan Campbell revealed how, since the 1940s and 1950s, Britain has become a safe haven for many US bases and facilities. However, alongside the cruise missile silos (e.g. Greenham Common) and nuclear bomber bases is a network of intelligence installations, command centres, communications stations – even hospitals, for use only in war.
Campbell also disclosed the interception capabilities of the NSA (National Security Agency – the agency responsible for global monitoring, collection, and processing of information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes) at the US base at Menwith Hill. He also described the existence of UKUSA, a multilateral agreement for cooperation in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) between the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The alliance of intelligence operations is also known as the “Five Eyes” which emerged from an informal agreement related to the 1941 Atlantic Charter. Due to its status as a secret treaty, its existence was not known to the Prime Minister of Australia until 1973, and it was not disclosed to the public until 2005. On 25 June 2010, the full text of the agreement was eventually released by the UK and the US and can now be viewed online.
The UK based US/UK data gathering and SIGINT spy bases will be the subject of a future post.