|This article originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of the late &
lamented Air World International magazine, but has been updated and re-written by the
author to reflect a rapidly changing situation.
UK airfield assets: running out of runway?
By Gary Parsons
The thawing of the Cold War and break-up of the Warsaw Pact has seen large-scale reductions in NATO's military capability. Consequently, the RAF has seen its squadrons axed and personnel cut from over 90,000 to around 55,000, an inevitable result being a surplus of runway length.
Many units have been moved or disbanded as a result of the Government's 'Options for Change' and 'Front Line First' policies, with East Anglia in particular being most affected. American units have also withdrawn from Europe, with the UK and Germany bearing most of the brunt. By 1990 the military map of East Anglia sported ten operational airfields, seven of them fully equipped with Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), but today only four house active squadrons, these being Coltishall, Lakenheath, Marham and Mildenhall. Alconbury, Bentwaters and Woodbridge have closed, with Honington, Wattisham and Wyton taking on a change of role. Such has been the change that all four HAS-equipped airfields in Suffolk, Bentwaters, Honington, Wattisham and Woodbridge, no longer house military aeroplanes. Wattisham is still an active military installation but the shelters are no more than glorified vehicle parks; it is highly unlikely that they will ever open to greet a homecoming fighter.
For the record, all military airfields in the UK are owned by the Crown, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) controlling their use and function. The few remaining US bases each has a RAF commander appointed to them, reporting to Strike Command, who has the same powers and responsibilities as the local American commander.
Airfields serve more than just a place to park aeroplanes, they are a fully integrated part of the local community and provide a vital stimulus to the economy. In East Suffolk, it was estimated that the withdrawal of US forces from the Woodbridge area lost the region approximately £18 million per year, as not only was the American spending power lost, but there was no need for a wide variety of support services provided by the local populace. All manner of trades are supplied from the area around a modern airbase, not only permanent but also those hired or contracted on a regular or frequent basis; it is hard to find a modern airfield that has not got some building or construction work underway somewhere, and there will be a myriad of maintenance tasks within the infrastructure, often using local labour. Domestic areas will be alive with shops, libraries, community activities, schools; the families of the servicemen or women do not live a forty-hour week, there will be weekends to fill, often spending hard-earned money in the nearest town or city.
Ideally, airfields need to be readily available in all parts of the country, because as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait proved, a threat can develop quickly and unexpectedly. The recent rise of the Communists once more in Russia, while not a realistic threat at the moment, could lead to a 'cooling off' of international relations. Their support of Saddam Hussein subsequent to the recent British and American action in Iraq suggests all is not as cosy as was first thought; also, the internal troubles of the former Soviet Bear may see a resurgence of Nationalism that could begin to destabilise the Baltic region. Surveillance flights of the old Tu95 Bears could begin to probe our northern flanks again; similarly it is not outside the bounds of possibility a religious change could envelop the North African states, with the old Soviet powers eager to earn a 'fast buck' for aircraft such as 'Backfire'. With these, Europe could be within striking range. Far-fetched scenarios maybe, but if you had told a Berliner in 1985 that within five years the wall would be torn down by the people's bare hands, he would not have believed you.
February 1994 saw 13 Squadron leave Honington's runway for a new home at nearby Marham, joining 2 Squadron to establish the RAF's Tornado photoreconnaissance units at one base. This was one of the last movements of the former Conservative government's 'Options for Change' policy, and left Honington without any resident aircraft. Today's role for the base is to house the central depot of the RAF Regiment, having moved down from Catterick in the summer of 1994. The Regiment occupies most of the base accommodation, so the chances of flying units being permanently based here are remote, unless another round of relocation happens. The Military Air Traffic Zone (MATZ) controlled by Honington ceased to function after the departure of 13 Squadron, all local traffic now being controlled by Lakenheath. However, the sound of jet engines is heard again on occasions, the airfield providing a suitable 'bolthole' for squadrons on detachment or deployment. 22 May 1995 saw the United States Air Force 48th Fighter Wing arrive to fly operationally from the base while runway work was undertaken at Lakenheath. It was a return to Honington for the Americans, as fifty years before the airfield was home to the 364th Fighter Group, flying P38 Lightnings and P51D Mustangs.
The three units that form the 'Liberty Wing', the 492nd, 493rd and 494th Fighter Squadrons, moved in for a thirteen week deployment while the runway at Lakenheath was resurfaced, mainly as a result of excessive use during the Gulf War period, resulting in the scheduled renewal date of the strip being brought forward by a few years. Honington's use highlighted the lack of alternative space at other US airfields, as Alconbury had shut its doors the previous March and the only other possibles of Bentwaters, Woodbridge and Upper Heyford had long since been vacated. This was not the only deployment to Honington in 1995, as in October the two Marham Tornado squadrons moved in while their runway was also undergoing maintenance, 13 Squadron taking up residence in their 'old' HAS complex which had also been reactivated for the 493rd Fighter Squadron. 1996 and 1997 would see the RAF's Harrier force use the airfield for 'in the field' exercises, the HAS complexes provided somewhat more luxurious accommodation than that offered in the forests of Northern Germany.
Given that the RAF's No. 2 Group's Harrier units in Germany are to be relocated to the UK by 1999 under 'Options for Change' and the Tornado squadrons by 2001, Honington would seem to have been the obvious location for the remaining three elements of the Bruggen Wing. There is no other RAF airfield with the necessary infrastructure of HAS complexes, but it was announced in the Strategic Defence Review of July 1998 that two squadrons, 9 and 31, will return to Marham alongside the existing Tornado squadrons and 14 Squadron will venture forth to Lossiemouth. Both bases will be extremely busy but more importantly HAS accommodation will be lacking, resulting in either a sharing of shelters or a rotation every few months. Protection to aircraft is paramount, only really offered by HAS equipped airfields. Fighter aircraft need to be flexible with dispersal airfields around the country, one reason why the Cornish base of St. Mawgan and also Boscombe Down in Wiltshire have been provided with HAS, although no aircraft have ever been permanently based at either location. While HAS operations are derided in some quarters as meaningless in today's world, it may not be so in the future; a sensible policy would be to locate all operational squadrons at those airfields with HAS complexes, even if the shelters themselves are not always in use. This would allow a programme of care and maintenance to be implemented at minimal cost and provide instant 'deployment' training; winter operations could be conducted in a warm and dry environment, increasing efficiency of both ground crew and aircraft. It would be interesting to hear the opinions of the flightline servicing crews at Coltishall or Wittering on a wet and cold January morning!
Most of the squadron reductions brought about by 'Options for Change' were concentrated in the combat units, leading to concern amongst senior staff in the forces. As a result the 'Front Line First' study was initiated to fortify the capability of the units left and economise by attempting to contractorise as many support services as possible. In 1993, the Minister for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, confirmed the future policy on Eurofighter to the House of Commons in January 1993 when he stated there would only be three types of combat aircraft in the RAF's inventory after service entry by EF2000, "Eurofighter, an upgraded Tornado GR1 (GR4) and the Harrier GR7". An airfield is to be readied for the introduction of EF2000 (or Typhoon, as it probably will be accepted in the RAF) and confidence is high at Coningsby that it will see the formation of the OCU, Tornado F3 training possibly being absorbed by Leuchars and Leeming in the wind-down period. It seems government policy is still to proceed with purchasing 250 Typhoons, the Tornado F3 force being the first to be replaced followed by the Jaguar squadrons. Originally, Jaguar was to have been the first to be replaced, but its success during 'Desert Storm' and subsequent peacekeeping operations has seen it benefit from a Mid Life Update (MLU) with Thermal Imaging Laser Designation (TIALD) equipment to produce what is basically a GR3 variant. Further life extending measures will intend keeping Jaguar operational until 2008, ensuring another twelve years of operations from Coltishall. What this means for the base is not clear, as by then work-up on the Typhoon will have been complete elsewhere, so it is likely that its future is very much in the hands of further cuts in squadron numbers. Having no HAS facility may count against its continued use by strike units but its proximity to the North Sea may be its salvation, with a support or training role possibly taken up together with aircraft using the ACMI ranges (if proposed expansion of these by BAe materialises).
With the concentration of strike assets in the UK, the short to mid term future of most other remaining active stations seems secure. Tornado strike operations will be centred around two bases, Lossiemouth and Marham, with all conversion training taking place at the former. It has been confirmed that the Jaguar OCU at Lossiemouth will move to Coltishall in March 2000 as the start of the process. F3 operations will continue at Leuchars, Leeming and Coningsby, the Harrier force shortly being concentrated at Cottesmore and Wittering.
Regarding the Harrier and Jaguar forces, a study was undertaken by the MoD in 1992 to investigate the possibility of moving both of them to the two redundant American bases around Woodbridge, both HAS equipped. It has been cited that the 110 volt American specification electrical system was too costly to convert to British standard, probably one factor in the decision not to use the bases, but another quoted was that the bases were too far south, increasing the transit times for aircraft to the Scottish and Welsh ranges. In September 1993, as the last American personnel left Bentwaters, the 'doors were locked' and no serious maintenance programme implemented. Previously, at the last airshow in 1992, tee-shirts were available with the slogan "RAF Bentwaters 1993; will the last person leaving please switch off the lights". Prophetic, as although the base was reactivated temporarily in September 1994 for Exercise 'Hazel Flute', when the three operational Harrier squadrons deployed for a forward mobility exercise, the electricity supply was not powered up, even for domestic lighting, all necessary power being provided by mobile generators. Just how long a base such as Bentwaters can be left without attention is unclear, but after twelve short months decay had set in to buildings that had not been heated, weeds had grown through the runway and the ivy at the 'Ivy Lodge' gate had claimed the guard hut as its own. Buildings, runways, even the sturdy HAS all need maintenance if future use is contemplated, as electrical systems soon get damp, metal fittings corrode and plaster and concrete breaks up with the contraction and expansion through variation in temperature, a result of not being regularly heated.
Bentwaters' future is in the balance, a failed attempt by the Maharishi Foundation to purchase the operational and domestic sites to establish a 'University of Natural Law' led to a construction firm, the Chris Parker Group, obtaining the complete area with the intention being to build a leisure park complex similar to existing 'Center Parcs' and a new village on the site of the existing domestic area. Formed in 1994, the group's aim was primarily to secure military installations for redevelopment, Bentwaters being the first. Planning difficulties led to the bid becoming unsuccessful, local opposition to the anticipated traffic levels also proving to be a barrier. The original planning brief for Bentwaters, prepared by the local district council early in 1994, envisaged the continued use of the runway and technical areas for light aviation and commercial use. Ipswich Airport's impending closure had a bearing on this policy, but it was ultimately doomed to failure as there was little interest from the aviation society in moving to a relatively remote location. British Aerospace was rumoured to have been interested for a location for its ACMI activities, but with the collapse of the Parker Group deal the base has languished for a few more years and is still unsold, although a new proposal for a civil airport and new village is being considered by the planning authorities. Upper Heyford and Alconbury are also proving as difficult to dispose of, but the latter's proximity to the A1, A14 and East Coast rail line may see it developed as a transportation hub.
Built to withstand a nuclear near-hit, the immense amount of demolition work required poses the biggest challenge to any developer. The Parker Group's bid was interesting in that the runway at Bentwaters, resurfaced at a not inconsiderable sum during the winter of 1990/91 to take the heaviest NATO aircraft, was to be completely removed, as were twenty-one of the twenty-two HAS. Proposed demolition of the HAS involved the cutting of the external concrete skin with water cooled saws and the use of hydraulic jacks to break the internal steel skin, then using acetylene cutters and a crane to remove the concrete in sections. A very labour intensive method, costs would be high, but over a five-year programme the group believed it could cover the cost of demolition of the entire base with the sale of hardcore. However, this is dependent upon a strong market, something now very unlikely given the slashing of the road programme in recent government budgets. Yet to be tested in anger, it will be interesting to see whether the concrete monoliths can be dismantled as effectively as believed.
Cutbacks are understandable given today's less aggressive political climate and the need to provide more money for health and social security, but the wisdom of actively disposing of assets such as fully equipped HAS airfields in such a short space of time must be debated. History often repeats itself, the early years of the 1990s often being compared to the early thirties in economic terms. Once airforce levels have been reduced to the minimum it becomes very difficult to respond to a situation where extra resources are needed in a short space of time. Training requirements for today's fighter pilots are infinitely more intensive and time consuming than sixty years ago; the vast expansion of the RAF between 1936 and 1940 to counter the Nazi threat would not be possible today. Spitfires constructed by the thousand, each in a matter of days, are far removed from multi-million pound modern-day Typhoons, and the same is true for airfields; the rudimentary grass strips of 1939 would serve no purpose today. If rapid expansion of the service was necessary, the folly of discarding bases like Bentwaters and Alconbury would be quickly realised, as there would be no time to embark on an exercise similar to that of the last war when over 400 concrete paved airfields were constructed in a four year period. One of the largest civil engineering programmes of all time, enough concrete was laid to build a major highway from London to the North Pole. Bases such as Bentwaters, Alconbury and Upper Heyford were developed over a period of fifty years, to the point where the infrastructure is so complex that the cost of demolition is almost prohibitive. Thus the land becomes redundant, except for what it was built for, housing modern weapons of war. Bentwaters is a role model, and so far has proved the case.
Tactically, airfields are necessary to disperse aircraft quickly in an emergency, and ideally stand-by bases would be maintained at various locations across the country. As can be seen, the current policy of 'eggs in one basket' somewhat contradicts this, but in today's harsh economic climate, without any immediate threat, financial constraints count more than strategic planning. This is understandable, as concentration of one type at a single base will save on minor maintenance, but a longer-term problem of lack of runway length will evolve if those airfields presently empty are not maintained in a reasonable condition. Since the mid-nineties the Tucano training fleet has been centred on Linton-on-Ouse, with the airfields at Scampton and Finningley closing their doors. Both are large stations, especially Finningley which had the busiest military circuit in the country until a few months before closure, but it was considered the training fleet could be better located as the output of trainee pilots had diminished substantially. Today, Valley provides all the tactical weapons and fast jet flying training for the RAF through the 'Mirror-image' syllabus, doing the job that it, Brawdy and Chivenor were tasked to do until 1992. However, this has led to the circuit becoming rather crowded so detachments are sent to St. Athan and St. Mawgan which are closer to the Pembrey ranges previously enjoyed by Chivenor. An adequate arrangement today, but if urgent expansion of the training system was needed, could this be achieved if the circuits are already crowded at a time when the service has never been smaller?