Sen. John Thune
Ellsworth Air Force Base is well-known to all South Dakotans, especially those who live in West River. It’s not only home to two B-1B Lancer combat squadrons and MQ-9 Reaper ground control stations, but it’s a staple of the community and is something in which our state takes great pride. The base has a $350 million impact on South Dakota’s economy and is the state’s second largest employer, and thanks to the recent Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) expansion, Ellsworth is saving taxpayers millions of dollars per year and can now conduct advanced training closer to home.
It’s in this expanded PRTC, which spans the skies over South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, that airmen are able to practice the kinds of realistic engagements they expect to see in combat. I spent nearly a decade working with the Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to move the PRTC project forward and saw it through to the end. It was a long road, but following the FAA’s approval of the project in March 2015, the PRTC was charted on September 17, 2015, and flights through the area began just 24 hours later.
One of the greatest advantages of the new training airspace, now the largest over the continental United States, is the ability to conduct large force exercises (LFEs) with airmen from around the country who pilot a variety of aircraft. The larger area, which is nearly the size of Indiana, provides space to simulate enemy threats hundreds of miles away. To give a sense of this expanded area, imagine a highway patrolman moving from a training space the size of an empty parking lot to one the size of a race track fit with obstacles and gradient terrain. This will drastically increase the likelihood of successfully accomplishing future combat missions and will help bring our aircrew home safe and sound.
The first LFE was completed late last year, and I was recently able to join Ellsworth’s airmen to view the second LFE in the PRTC. What an experience it was to see it firsthand. Nearly 20 aircraft, including B-52s, F-16s, KC-135s, E-3s, and B-1s participated. One the biggest limiting factors for our flight crew readiness has been the availability of training airspace nationwide. The PRTC helps alleviate that problem, all while improving our national security and saving the Department of Defense millions of dollars too.
While I’m excited about the opportunities this presents for Ellsworth and the airmen who train there, I’ve always felt it was important to listen to the concerns of the surrounding community, and I will continue to make that a priority. These missions will go largely unnoticed by people on the ground, but the leaders at Ellsworth still provide adequate notice to the community prior to the days of these exercises, and rightly so. It’s because of this transparency, commitment to the community, and dedication to training the men and women who keep America safe that makes us proud Ellsworth calls South Dakota home.
NOTE: Click here for more information about the PRTC and Sen. Thune’s involvement in securing its expansion.