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Thune Discusses Defense Bill Priorities for Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Current and Future Missions, Including the B-21 Bomber

“I will continue to do everything I can to support not only our airmen at Ellsworth and the B-21 mission, but the critical work of upgrading our nation’s military capabilities.”

July 20, 2023

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today spoke on the Senate floor about the National Defense Authorization Act’s (NDAA’s) importance to the men and women at Ellsworth Air Force Base and to the advancement of the future B-21 bomber mission.

Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):

Mr. President, currently the Senate is considering one of the most important pieces of legislation we consider each year – the National Defense Authorization Act.


“It’s the bill that authorizes funding for our men and women in uniform and our defense needs – from planes, ships, and submarines, to weapons, logistics, and communications technology. 


“Mr. President, the United States has long had a reputation for military strength, and part of that reputation has rested on the strength of our equipment. 


“But in recent years, our technological advantage has eroded – to the point where there is reason to be concerned whether we would win a war against a major power like China.


“And while we’ve made some progress to reverse this trend, we have a lot more work to do to ensure our military retains our technological edge.


“And I am glad that this year’s NDAA makes progress toward this goal.  


“Mr. President, today I want to talk about one critical aspect of America’s defense capabilities in particular – long-range strike, specifically our bombers. 


“Long-range strategic bombers have played a critical role for the United States in a number of conflicts.


“But today’s bomber force is desperately in need of an update.


“Our bomber inventory is roughly one-third of the size it was in 1989.


“And it’s the oldest in Air Force history.


“And experts warn that in a conflict, the current U.S. bomber force would be insufficient against an adversary like China. 


“Fortunately, this is one problem that we have made a concerted effort to address.


“Congress, the Pentagon, and successive administrations have been at work developing a next-generation strategic bomber for a number of years.


“And later this year, the B-21 Raider – a sixth-generation, long-range strategic bomber – will take its first flight.


“The Air Force calls the Raider the future backbone of its bomber force.


“And Secretary of Defense Austin says it’s ‘deterrence the American way.’


“The B-21 is an example of what American ingenuity can achieve.


“It will be able to penetrate hostile air defenses and reach targets anywhere in the world, which 90 percent of our current bomber force can’t do.


“All while launching from the United States and deploying stealth technologies that you have to see – or, should I say, not see – to believe. 


“Its systems will be able to evolve with a changing threat environment and incorporate new technologies within the airframe.


“And it will be able to work alongside the technologies of tomorrow, such as unmanned aircraft and artificial intelligence.


“The specter of the B-21 has already caused a stir in China.


“And I’m certain that it will cause our adversaries to think twice about aggression.


“Mr. President, I’m proud that when the B-21 enters service in the next few years, South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base will be Main Operating Base 1, home to both the Formal Training Unit and the first operational squadron.


“The men and women of Ellsworth are working hard to prepare for this important new mission.


“And I’m working to ensure they have everything they need to successfully carry it out.  


“Last year, I worked to ensure that Congress provided not only for the development and initial production of the B-21 but for support facilities at Ellsworth that will be needed for the aircraft, including a radio frequency facility and a weapons generation facility.


“I was also able to secure language in last year’s NDAA to create a pilot program to evaluate dynamic airspace concepts. 


“Dynamic airspace will allow airspace boundaries to evolve as military exercises progress, enabling larger volumes of airspace for realistic training for aircraft like the B-21.   

“And I’m pleased to report that this year’s NDAA authorizes full funding for the next steps of the B-21 mission – including continued bomber development and procurement, as well as continued investment in the required support facilities at Ellsworth.


“Mr. President, looking at Ellsworth today, it’s hard to imagine that its future was in jeopardy not that long ago.


“Shortly after I came to the Senate, the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended Ellsworth for closure.


“So one of my first priorities as a U.S. senator was just keeping Ellsworth open.


“The odds were not in our favor.

“But thanks to an all-hands effort by our congressional delegation and state and community leaders, we proved to the BRAC Commission that Ellsworth was too valuable an asset to lose. 


“And then we got right to work building up the base so that we would never again find ourselves in the same position.


“Today, Ellsworth is home not only to the B-1 bomber, the current workhorse of long-range strike, but also the Air Force Financial Services Center; the 89th Attack Squadron, which remotely controls MQ-9 Reapers; the Powder River Training Complex, the largest training air space in the continental United States; and, soon, the B-21 Raider.


“Once slated for closure, Ellsworth is set to be a critical part of our nation’s defense long into the future. 


“And I will continue to do everything I can to support both the base’s mission and the men and women who make it happen.   


“Mr. President, as I’ve noted, the B-21 represents a substantial advance in our nation’s long-range strike capabilities, and will help ensure that we are more prepared to meet the threats of the 21st century.


“But as critical as it is, long-range strike is just one aspect of our nation’s defense, and we still have a lot of work to do to strengthen our nation’s readiness across the board.


“We need more B-21-type efforts to leverage the best of our technological advancements to upgrade other aspects of our nation’s defense – and we need them quickly.


“The war in Ukraine, as well as war games addressing the defense of Taiwan, have made clear the cost of a major conflict.


“And if we hope to avoid such conflicts and deter future attacks against our country or our allies, we need to make restoring our readiness a top priority.


“As we move forward, I will continue to do everything I can to support not only our airmen at Ellsworth and the B-21 mission, but the critical work of upgrading our nation’s military capabilities. 


“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”