Recent Op-Eds

From BRAC to B-21: Ellsworth’s Mission Goes On

By Sen. John Thune

July 21, 2023

Just a few months after I was elected to the Senate, we got the dreaded news that Ellsworth Air Force Base was being recommended for closure. The odds of saving the base were slim. The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission in charge of these decisions rarely reversed course. But, through an all-hands effort by our congressional delegation and state and community leaders, we proved to the Air Force and the BRAC Commission that Ellsworth was too valuable to lose.

We didn’t stop there, though. Having saved Ellsworth from closure, we got right to work building up the base so we would never again find ourselves in the same position. In 2007, the Air Force Financial Services Center opened at Ellsworth. The 89th Attack Squadron, which remotely commands MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, arrived a few years later. In 2015, after a nearly decade-long effort, we quadrupled the base’s local training airspace, making the Powder River Training Complex the largest range in the lower 48. And in 2021, Ellsworth was designated Main Operating Base 1 for the B-21 Raider, meaning it will host the Formal Training Unit and first operational squadron.

The B-21 will extend Ellsworth’s already incredible contributions to America’s national security for years to come. A sixth-generation long-range bomber, the Raider has been called the future backbone of the bomber force. And that’s no exaggeration. Operating from the United States, it will be able to reach targets around the world that 90 percent of our current bomber force can’t. It will use stealth technologies that you have to see – or not see – to believe. And it’s designed to be able to incorporate new technologies within its airframe and work alongside the technologies of tomorrow, like unmanned aircraft and artificial intelligence, enabling the B-21 to evolve with a changing threat environment.

It will be another few years before the first B-21s make their home in the Black Hills, but 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. In recent years, I’ve secured full funding for the B-21 project and its support facilities at Ellsworth. I also worked to establish a dynamic airspace pilot program that will allow airspace boundaries to evolve as exercises progress, which is critical for training in long-range aircraft like the B-21. And I’m proud to report that this year’s defense bill includes full authorization for continued B-21 development and base preparation.

Looking at Ellsworth today, it’s hard to imagine that its future was in jeopardy not long ago. Once slated for closure, Ellsworth is set to be a critical part of our nation’s defense long into the future. I will continue to do everything I can to support both the base’s mission and the men and women who make it happen.