Fresh fears over the future of RAF Marhama

Annabelle DicksonRAF Marham was left in the lurch last night amid fears that the base could be scaled back as part of defence cutbacks aimed at increasing funding for the war in Afghanistan.Annabelle Dickson

RAF Marham was left in the lurch last night amid fears that the base could be scaled back as part of defence cutbacks aimed at increasing funding for the war in Afghanistan.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth told the Commons yesterday that to fund �900m of new equipment for British troops in the war zone, RAF Cottesmore in Rutland would be closed with the loss of one of its four Harrier squadrons and consolidation of the Harrier force at Raf Wittering in Cambridgeshire.

But it emerged last night that ministers are considering scrapping 'one or two' Tornado squadrons in a wider defence review planned next year - immediately putting a question-mark over the future of the four squadrons at the Norfolk base.

While no-one at the base near Swaffham would comment last night, local MPs attacked the uncertainty left by Mr Ainsworth's statement and demanded clarification from the Ministry of Defence.

Christopher Fraser, Tory MP for South West Norfolk which includes Marham, said the Tornados there were 'a vital asset to the UK's air defence capabilities' while the base was also vital to the local economy.

North-West Norfolk Tory MP Henry Bellingham said: 'On the one hand these young servicemen and women are being asked to put their lives at risk and on the other hand their future at the base is being questioned.

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'RAF Marham is very important in terms of the defence infrastructure. It's a vital frontline base. It is a huge employer in Norfolk. It's part of Norfolk's history as well. It's not just the number of jobs; it's a vital part of the community and has a civic role.'

RAF Marham is currently home to four squadrons of Tornado GR4 aircraft, with a further four Tornado squadrons at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Now both will have to await next year's defence review, which is unlikely to come before a general election.

Mr Ainsworth told the Commons the defence spending changes would ensure 'those who put themselves in harm's way on our behalf remain properly supported and resourced.'

The cuts will mean the closure of RAF Cottesmore in Rutland and the immediate loss of one squadron of Harrier fast jets; reductions in overall service personnel numbers and some aspects of Army training; the early withdrawal of Nimrod MR2 surveillance planes; and the removal from service of one survey ship and one minehunter.

Spending on the defence estate will be reduced, planned reductions in older Lynx and Merlin Mk1 helicopters will be brought forward and cuts in the MoD civilian workforce are also expected.

Forces in Afghanistan will benefit from more body armour and night-vision goggles, more Bowman tactical radios, better funding for intelligence, enhanced capabilities to deal with roadside bombs and more cash for special forces communications.

An additional C-17 aircraft will strengthen the 'air bridge' with the UK and there will be improvements to the defensive and support arrangements for the RAF Hercules heavy-lift fleet.

Mr Ainsworth also announced plans to buy an additional 22 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, the first of which should arrive for use on the frontline in Afghanistan in 2012/13.

Mr Fraser said: 'RAF Marham is one of the busiest RAF bases. The Tornados are a vital asset to the UK's air defence capabilities and it goes without saying they would not be able to function without the station's dedicated maintenance and support staff.

'Urgent clarification is needed on this issue because these cuts would undoubtedly have an impact on local employment and the local economy as a whole.'

Mr Bellingham said: 'Now is not the time to be cutting back on defence expenditure when we've got a war going on. RAF bases are frontline operations. We should not have any cuts or reductions in our front line operations.'

Mr Ainsworth told MPs: 'This is a difficult balance to strike but I am confident we have got that balance right and this will be demonstrated where it matters most - on the frontline.'

He added that the Treasury was providing �280m from reserves to fund additional Huskytactical support vehicles and Jackal fire support vehicles for Afghanistan, as well as equipment to deal with roadside bombs, including robots and over 400 hand-held detectors.'