By Sen. John Thune
This year, Ellsworth Air Force Base, located just outside Rapid City, has seen its role in our national security increase dramatically. Early this spring, the Air Force signed off on the completion of an eight-year project to expand the Powder River Training Complex, or PRTC, the airspace in which our B-1B bombers train. Until the expansion, this airspace was only big enough to permit one B-1B bomber to train at a time, which meant that our aircrews had to commute to other airspace to meet their training needs.
With this expansion, the PRTC has quadrupled in size, making it roughly the size of Indiana and spread over four states, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. Eighty-five percent of our aircrews’ training needs can now be met here in South Dakota, with live-fire exercises taking place elsewhere. This will potentially save Ellsworth $23 million per year and allows our state to host missions from across the country as aircraft come here to utilize this national resource.
This week, we also saw another milestone in the notable history of Ellsworth Air Force Base, as the command structure for the B-1B bombers moved from Air Combat Command to Global Strike Command. This means that all of our nations’ bombers, the B-1B, the B-2, and the B-52, will now be under the same command.
The B-1B remains a legacy mission for the Air Force, and the aircraft modernization the fleet is undergoing means the B-1B will continue to be the work horse of our Air Force for years to come. However, as we look to the future, the United States will eventually need a new, highly advanced, long-range bomber to meet our security needs.
The contract for this new bomber, known as the Long Range Strike-Bomber, or LRS-B, should be announced by years’ end, with the new aircraft coming online in the mid-2020s. When that happens, the LRS-B will gradually replace the B-1B and the B-52 bombers. By moving Ellsworth to Global Strike Command, the Air Force is anticipating that transition. Ellsworth’s command structure is now in a place where it can smoothly receive the new bombers once they come online.
According to General Richard Clark, commander of the 8th Air Force, the transition to the new command will be seamless for the men and women stationed at Ellsworth. “They will wear a different patch,” Gen. Clark said recently, “but aside from that it won’t be a significant change.” He went on to say, “in general this is a really great move for the Air Force.”
With the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex and the transition to Global Strike Command, the key role Ellsworth plays in our national defense has been solidified for years to come.