By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing tight budgets and a shrinking military, the Pentagon said on Thursday it was ending operations at an air base in Britain and handing it and 14 other sites in Europe back to their home governments in a move projected to save $500 million annually.
The Pentagon said it would divest RAF Mildenhall northeast of London, home to tanker, reconnaissance and special operations aircraft, and withdraw 3,200 military personnel and their families over the next several years.
The reductions at RAF Mildenhall would be partially offset later in the decade when the Pentagon adds 1,200 personnel and two squadrons of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at nearby RAF Lakenheath, home to the U.S. 48th Fighter Wing.
The net loss of U.S. troops in Britain would be about 2,000, the Pentagon said, the biggest of the consolidation moves in Europe in terms of personnel. Several facilities in Germany would be closed, but overall U.S. troop numbers were expected to rise by a few hundred.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged the moves would result in job losses in the countries affected but said the changes were necessary to "help maximize our military capabilities in Europe so that we can best support our NATO allies and partners."
About 500 U.S. military and civilian personnel would be withdrawn from Lajes Field in the Azores, reducing U.S. troop numbers in Portugal. An air control squadron from Germany would be relocated to Italy, increasing U.S. forces there by some 300.
The Europe base moves come as the Pentagon is under orders to reduce projected spending by nearly $1 trillion over a decade. In a bid to curb costs, the department has repeatedly asked Congress to close some facilities in the United States, where excess capacity is thought to be around 20 percent.
But Congress has resisted any closures, with some lawmakers telling defense officials to cut excess facilities in Europe first. The United States has more than 64,000 troops stationed in Europe, most in Germany, Italy and Britain.
The moves come amid heightened tensions between Russia and NATO after Moscow's annexation of the Ukraine's Crimean region and its support for pro-Russian militants opposed to the Kiev government.
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army troops in Europe, told Reuters last week that budget pressures made cuts in U.S. forces inevitable, but it would be good to maintain current levels in Europe until the security picture clarifies.
"We can carry out the tasks that we have now, that are assigned now, with the currently assigned forces and infrastructure and with the rotational forces that the Army has committed to provide," he said. "It would certainly be a challenge if they got any less."
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Doina Chiacu)