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The case to save Ellsworth

August 22, 2005

The members of the BRAC Commission will gather next week to determine Ellsworth's fate. Unless five of the nine commissioners agree to disagree with the Pentagon's recommendation to close Ellsworth, the base will close.

With that fact in mind, we have worked tirelessly to save Ellsworth since the Pentagon made its recommendation in May. Standing together, we have done everything possible to expose a number of grave flaws in the Pentagon's recommendations. During hearings, letters and face-to-face meetings with the Commission, we have fought to keep Ellsworth open for generations to come.

The case to save Ellsworth is strong no matter how you look at it.

On a national security basis, the Pentagon's plans to consolidate the Air Force's B-1B fleet at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas is a monumental error that would leave our bombers vulnerable to every sort of disaster from terrorism to tornadoes. The plan ignores the established tenet of dispersing vital military assets at different locations. Instead, the Pentagon is proposing to abandon that tenet as we enter an era of emerging threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Several of the commissioners have publicly questioned the wisdom of consolidating bomber fleets - and it remains the crux of the case to save Ellsworth.

We have also raised serious questions about the financial wisdom of closing Ellsworth. The BRAC process is intended to save taxpayers' money, but the Pentagon's predicted savings are highly dubious. As the New York Times reported last week, a majority of the BRAC commissioners now doubt that the proposed base closings -- including Ellsworth -- will save anything close to the $50 billion promised by the Pentagon. This raises serious questions about the fiscal wisdom of closing Ellsworth, which the GAO reports would be the most expensive Air Force base to close (at nearly $300 million), while providing the lowest comparative savings amongst the Air Force's recommendations.

Finally, we've discovered serious omissions in the data used to make the Pentagon's recommendations. Specifically, the primary reason why Dyess was selected over Ellsworth for the nation's B-1Bs was because of airspace quality. But the Pentagon failed to consider ongoing litigation and court orders in Texas that substantially limit the Air Force's flexibility and access to airspace surrounding Dyess. With plaintiffs continuing to file litigation against the Air Force as recently as last week, the BRAC must take into account the serious possibility that many of the bombers stationed at Dyess may be required to fly hundreds of miles to find unrestricted training airspace at an exorbitant cost. (Possibly, right back to the training area near Ellsworth!)

Citizens across South Dakota have helped make this case to the BRAC Commission. The Ellsworth Task Force deserves special recognition for organizing the successful BRAC field hearing in Rapid City this summer, which drew the largest crowds of any BRAC hearing in America. Public support has been vital in the fight to save Ellsworth and we should all be proud.

However, we must also realize that historically the odds are against us no matter how persuasive our case. The Pentagon eyed Ellsworth for closure very early in the process and the BRAC was designed to favor its recommendations.

If Ellsworth does close, it will be a terrible loss. But South Dakotans are resilient - we live in the best state in the nation, full of great resources like our fertile farmland, world-class tourism and highly skilled workforce.

Regardless of what the BRAC Commission decides next week, we are proud of the fight we waged to save Ellsworth and confident South Dakota's best days are ahead.