THE RAF base at Leuchars could be axed to save thousands of jobs in the north east of Scotland, The Scotsman has learned.
• The two squadrons based at RAF Leuchars show their strength. However, due to its geographical position, the base could be threatened with closure Picture: PA
The Fife centre, which employs 1,200 people, is home of many of the UK's Typhoon Eurofighters. Initial Ministry of Defence briefings after last month's defence review made it clear the base would be safe from closure.
However, shutting Leuchars is now being considered as an alternative to closing RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and RAF Marham in Norfolk because ministers believe it would be easier to regenerate the area.
Until this week it was widely believed that Lossiemouth and Marham were in direct competition to survive as home of the Tornados and the new joint strike fighters (JSFs) when they come into service in 2020.
But the coalition government has come under fierce pressure to keep Lossiemouth open because of the impact on Moray's economy if it were to shut. The area is already braced for the closure of RAF Kinloss after a new fleet of Nimrods, which were to be based there, were cancelled in the Strategic Defence and Security Review.
The Scotsman understands RAF bosses had expected to retain the Nimrods at Kinloss. This would have minimised the impact on Moray, where more than 60 per cent of the local economy is dependent on the bases.
It is also felt that proposals to move troops returning to Scotland to the old bases will take too much time and not provide the same economic support as the RAF bases.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox, who has held talks with SNP Moray MP Angus Robertson, has come under pressure from Norway to keep Lossiemouth open because the Scandinavian country and the UK are seeking to have a closer working military relationship and Norway also plans to have the new JSFs.
However, the option of closing Marham is also politically difficult because it will cost more than 50 million to move vital engineering facilities from the base.
A group of influential East Anglian Conservative MPs are also vigorously fighting to keep Marham open and it is understood that ministers are reluctant to close a base in North West Norfolk which was once held by Labour.
The Scotsman understands Leuchars is now being looked at because, unlike Lossiemouth, it is near major population centres including Dundee and Perth and has good transport links to the Central Belt. The thinking is that the area could recover more easily from the closure than Moray, which would be hard and expensive to regenerate.
An MoD source said axing Leuchars was being "strongly" considered.
Yesterday a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said: "Leuchars is part of the review; all the bases are."
A final decision on the bases is due to be announced in March next year. If the Fife base is closed it will be a blow to the Lib Dems because it is situated in Sir Menzies Campbell's North East Fife seat, which could come under pressure from Labour as a result of boundary changes.
Sir Menzies, a former Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, yesterday launched a defence of the base's future. He claimed its survival was essential for military and strategic reasons.
He said: "RAF Leuchars fulfils a unique strategic role in Britain's air defence. It protects the main centres of population in the northern half of the United Kingdom and is perfectly positioned for that purpose. Its aircraft are frequently scrambled to head off unwelcome intruders into UK airspace.
"The first of the three promised squadrons of the Eurofighter Typhoon are already operating successfully from Leuchars. It is estimated that approximately 40m has been spent on upgrading Leuchars for the Typhoon in recent years including the resurfacing of the runway.
"RAF Leuchars is in the right place and doing the right job. There is no strategic case for its closure."
The threat to Leuchars throws up echoes of the Conservative government's decision in the 1990s to end work on submarines in Rosyth and send it to Devonport in south-west England, where the party was at the time defending marginal seats.
Fife Labour MSP John Park, who was a union official at Rosyth when the work was removed by the Tories in 1993, said he had received a text message from a friend who is a contractor at Leuchars and had been told he was no longer needed.
He said: "It has echoes of what happened at Rosyth because of the way the Tories seem to be protecting bases in their own area again but also because of the impact on jobs and local businesses. There will be a huge campaign to save Leuchars."
However, defence analyst Tim Ripley suggested Leuchars' problem may be that the RAF still does not know how many Typhoon Eurofighters it will have.
He said; "If there are only enough Typhoons to justify one base, then RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is more likely to get them because it has better facilities and the training facilities.
Mr Robertson, who is also the SNP's defence spokesman, has refused to comment on the fate of bases outside his Moray constituency.
But yesterday he again repeated the case for retaining Lossiemouth - the UK's largest base.
He said: "RAF Kinloss and Lossiemouth make an enormous contribution to the local economy and the closure of both bases would be the equivalent of 700,000 job losses in the Greater London area.
"There is no doubt that the successful future of RAF Lossiemouth can be secured through co-operation with our Nordic neighbours if the right military facilities are maintained and vital capabilities such as maritime reconnaissance and fast-jet capability located in the best strategic location.
"The national significance of the RAF's role in Scotland is demonstrated by the endorsement from each of Scotland's political leaders, including the Scottish Tories and Liberal Democrats, is that RAF basing should remain in Moray."
Leuchars is currently home to 6 Squadron of the Eurofighter Typhoons and 111 Fighter Squadron of the Tornado F3s, which is due to be disbanded in 2011. The base employs 900 military personnel and 300 civilians.
RAF Lossiemouth is home to four Tornado squadrons and directly employs 7,000 people.
However, Leuchars and Lossiemouth are not the only bases under threat in Scotland.
The rationalisation is likely to include the Black Watch's current home of Fort George, near Inverness.
The divisional headquarters at Craigiehall are also set to be closed down meaning that there will no longer be a general based north of the Border.
So far the only bases to be given the all clear are Faslane, which is home to the submarine fleet on the Clyde, and the Royal Marines base in Arbroath.