By Sen. John Thune
Ellsworth Air Force Base has a long and storied history near the Black Hills of South Dakota, and thanks to the U.S. Air Force’s recent update about its planned fleet of next-generation bombers, it looks like Ellsworth’s story will have yet another chapter.
After months of review, Air Force leaders recently announced that Ellsworth is among the three candidates to be a future B-21 bomber base. The Air Force intends to have three operational B-21 bases with a fleet of at least 100 aircraft, making Ellsworth well-positioned to be selected, following the completion of several government-required planning processes. If it is, it would help further cement the base’s place in America’s military and national defense history.
As we had expected, the Air Force has finalized its plan for the B-21 to eventually replace the existing B-1 fleet, of which Ellsworth is the home for two combat squadrons. In deciding where these new bombers will be bedded down, Air Force officials say that “Using the current bomber bases will minimize operational impact, reduce overhead, maximize re-use of facilities, and minimize cost.”
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, former president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and someone who knows Ellsworth and the surrounding community well, said, “Our current bomber bases are best suited for the B-21,” reiterating the Air Force’s position. I’ll speak for all South Dakotans when I say, we couldn’t agree more!
While this recent news is certainly worth celebrating, it wasn’t that long ago when we were fighting the Pentagon just to keep Ellsworth’s runways open. More than a decade ago, Ellsworth found itself on the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. If the Pentagon had its way, Ellsworth would be a thing of the past.
As a newly elected senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I wasn’t willing to go down without a fight, so I made the case to save Ellsworth to anyone who would listen, including the BRAC commission itself. The battle was worth fighting. In late summer 2005, because of its strategic value to our national defense, BRAC commissioners, breaking from the Pentagon, agreed to keep the base open.
Ten years later, Ellsworth’s role in America’s national defense grew even larger with the activation of the 89th remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper Attack Squadron and the Air Force approval of our nearly decade-long effort to expand the Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) so aircraft and the airmen who support them could train on a much larger scale. The PRTC expansion quadrupled the training airspace, which is spread over South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. It has allowed South Dakota to host airmen from across the country as they prepare for missions around the globe, and it will be essential for meeting the training needs of fifth generation aircraft like the B-21.Taken as a whole – Ellsworth’s strategic military value, its unprecedented training ground, and its second-to-none group of airmen who support these missions – Ellsworth is the perfect location for the B-21 Raider. A new fleet of aircraft would also mean an upgrade to some of Ellsworth’s infrastructure, and in turn, a boost to the local economy. All-in-all, it’s good news for the Air Force, it’s good news for the base, and it’s good news for the community that has and will continue to be Ellsworth’s home.