Gary Parsons reports on possibly the last French and Belgian deployments to RAF Waddington
All good things must come to an end - and so it seems must ACMI at Waddington, which for the enthusiast has been a very good thing indeed. For the last fifteen years it has attracted regular deployments of exotic aircraft to Lincolnshire, making French Mirages and Belgian F-16s as much a part of the UK military aviation scene as Tornados and Harriers, almost to the extent of making one blasé. But, just like Lightnings at Binbrook, A-10s at Bentwaters and F-111s at Lakenheath, we'll really miss them when they're gone.
It's a sign of dwindling defence budgets and rampant technological advances - the system installed by BAE Systems back in 1990 was state-of-the-art in its time, but today many air forces are moving to 'rangeless' GPS-based ACMI systems, removing the need for fixed hardware on the boundaries of the range airspace. The new systems mean training can be done anywhere, and de-brief made at the pilot's home base, so expensive overseas deployments can be avoided. Very helpful when the defence budget's under strain…
The downturn for BAE System's North Sea facility began about three years ago with the withdrawal of USAFE and the dismantling of the Lakenheath de-briefing facility. Since then many planned deployments have been cancelled due to 'operational reasons', and the gradual draw-down of Exercise NOMAD participants have all led to the position where BAE Systems can no longer operate the facility on a viable footing. New customers have been sought - the Greek Air Force were thought to be interested a couple of years ago, but discussions were eventually fruitless. Many of the new NATO member nations have fledgling air forces, unable to afford the costs of overseas deployment en-masse.
So, these final French and Belgian deployments of 2004 could well be the last we see of them - BAE Systems have notified its customers of its intention to close the range, and unless an upsurge of interest happens it will close for good in mid-2005. Its RAF contract will continue through the Spring of next year, but Exercise NOMAD was planned to have been the range's swansong in April until the exercise's sudden cancellation a week ago. The de-briefing facility will be removed in late 2005, together with the remote centres at Coningsby and Leeuwarden. This loss of de-briefing opportunities is one factor that many consider the relevant air forces have undervalued, as there is little that can better pilots getting together face-to-face to dicuss tactics and mission profiles.
Waddington's WAVE, a mecca for photographers and spotters for the last ten years, will be a much quieter place in the future, that's for sure.