US defence tour of RAF site hints at new nuclear weapons deal

The US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visits RAF Lakenheath
The US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks visits RAF Lakenheath

The US deputy defence secretary has been given a guided tour of an RAF base thought to be the destination of the first American nuclear weapons on UK soil for 15 years.

Kathleen Hicks visited RAF Lakenheath on Tuesday for a tour of “infrastructure improvements”, on a site where the US government is planning a £39.5 million dormitory for troops.

US budget documents said the site was for “surety”, jargon used by the Pentagon to describe operations related to nuclear weapons, and would be constructed next year.

Both the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the US Department of Defense have refused to comment on whether the Suffolk base will become home to the first American nuclear weapons in the UK since 2008, when 110 warheads were removed.

But Ms Hicks’s visit is the latest indication that the site has major strategic importance to the US Air Force, which is in charge of storing and maintaining the weapons.

Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said Ms Hicks visited the base as part of a three-day trip to the UK to meet with British counterparts.

“While at RAF Lakenheath, deputy secretary toured infrastructure improvements designed to improve base resilience and support for the base’s F-35 squadron and see demonstrations of US capabilities,” he said.

A US budget request earlier this year revealed the Pentagon planned to construct a new 144-bed “surety dormitory” in what is thought to be a high-security bomb-proof bunker for nuclear warheads.

It said the purpose of the building was to “house the increase in enlisted personnel as the result of the potential surety mission”.

A previous document, published in 2022, referred to a Nato project to build new “secure sites and facilities” to store “special weapons” in countries including the UK.

Following reports of the plans, RAF Lakenheath was hit with a planning objection by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), which argued that the MoD and West Suffolk Council failed to conduct an environmental impact assessment for the stationing of nuclear weapons on their former site.

RAF Lakenheath was chosen as one of three sites for US nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War.

The warheads were removed at the end of George Bush’s administration as the likelihood of nuclear warfare reduced, but may return amid new tensions with Russia.

The Pentagon declined to offer additional detail on Ms Hicks’ visit. The MoD was contacted for comment.